We know nothing at all about Ma Xiaomwe, and quite a bit about Matt Hancock. But there’s at least one big difference between them.
Namely, that if China’s Health Minister has been up to anything dodgy in his department – refining evidence about the origin of Covid-19, for example – we can be sure that no video evidence of it will ever reach the media.
That revelatory footage about the Health Secretary reached our own is being treated as a by-product of the story which has produced an apology from him.
It shouldn’t be: if the Sun can track behind-doors activity in the Department of Health, by means of a security breach, then so can others. Including Xiaomwe himself, perhaps..
But whether China’s Government should know more about what our Ministers are up to than we know about what theirs are up to is scarcely the point – at least, as far as the media, and most of the country, is concerned.
We have been here before. A Minister has an affair; Mr Hancock, in this case. And the game is afoot. The media pack and the Opposition want a scalp, claim that there are issues of public interest – and pile on the pressure.
The Government responds by saying: “move along now; nothing to see here”. Or did. Earlier today, Grant Shapps, ambushed about photos of the Health Secretary embracing Gina Coladangelo, held the line by claiming that the matter is “entirely personal”.
By mid-day or so, Downing Street realised that this position wouldn’t hold. So a statement was rushed out from the Health Secretary: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry.”
Boris Johnson will not want to let the press take Hancock’s scalp, for three reasons. First, because it’s bad for the Government to lose a senior Minister. And if Number Ten buckles before media pressure of this kind, the pack will come back for more – and soon.
Second, because he will not, repeat not, want to give the Health Secretary’s would-be nemesis, Dominic Cummings, a win. And third, because the Prime Minister’s own attitude to rules is, as Peter Mandelson once said about getting rich, “intensely relaxed”.
Johnson’s attitude seems to be: voters don’t care much about either of them – as long as public money isn’t involved. However, Downing Street seems quickly to have grasped that matters in this case aren’t quite so simple.
There are two main issues at stake here (assuming that Hancock is not in breach of the law). The first is whether Coladangelo should have been appointed as a non-executive director of the department that Hancock himself heads.
There is no problem in itself with non-execs. They are a hedge against departments policing themselves – providing expertise and perspectives that the civil service may not be able to offer.
Theodore Agnew at Justice and Education; John Nash at the latter department; Gisela Stuart at the Cabinet Office: all these have brought business or political or charitable experience to their work.
The boxes will have been ticked for Coladangelo’s appointment, and public interest in it will have been limited until now. That has changed.
The second issue is not whether the Health Secretary has done anything wrong. For by his own admission, he has. Rather, it is whether or not a statement of apology, apparently issued at the behest of Number Ten, is good enough.
Many people will say that it isn’t. That in itself isn’t surprising: Ministers don’t top the popularity charts. But there is a vicious twist to feeling in this case, summed up in the familiar phrase: one law for them, another law for us.
Those who hold it will, most likely, see a collage of images before them, like the posters on a teenager’s wall. These include: back-slapping politicians at the recent G7, special rules for foreign dignatories at the Euros, Cummings’ own drive to Barnard Castle.
In some cases, they will have had relatives and friends die, or fall seriously ill, during the pandemic (as the Prime Minister did himself). Often, they won’t have seen loved ones for months.
They may have lost wages and jobs. Or been unable to get an appointment in a doctor’s surgery. Or been affected, directly or indirectly, by the great exam fiasco. Some will be yearning to see family abroad, or to travel for a break.
The majority of all these will be supporters of the rules (and observers of most of them), but some will be opponents: critics of lockdown. These include over a sixth of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, if the recent vote on shutdown was anything to go by.
Which is where, in raw political terms, there are special dangers for Hancock. He has been the Cabinet’s main voice for lockdown in public, as well as an advocate for it in private – and is a target of their exasperation for that reason.
Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt’s Parliamentary inquiry will cast light on what the Department of Health has done right as well as wrong during Covid. But it is evident that vaccine success is a long way from being the whole story.
Hancock has been the Scapecock, as this site previously put it – under massive political and personal pressure. The good he has sometimes done has been claimed by others; the bad others have done sometimes blamed on him.
But you don’t have to go the full Cummings about the Health Secretary to agree that he, like others in government, has questions to answer.
And that’s aside from the awkward question of his own statement, inevitable under the circumstances, after Neil Ferguson was found breaching lockdown rules with his lover: “I think the social distancing rules are very important and people should follow them.”
Hancock has also found himself, unsurprisingly, trapped by pesky questions about who should be having sex with whom under lockdown rules: so if the media doesn’t get him, the memes may instead.
“In every political career comes a moment when the politician discovers how well he treated people on the way up,” Nick Boles tweeted earlier. “How many colleagues rush to his defence on air? How hard do journalists put the boot in?”
As we write, there is no rush of Hancock’s colleagues queuing up to defend him. But nor have any yet broken cover to demand his resignation. Until or unless they do, the Health Secretary will be safe enough in post, at least for the time being.
Tomorrow may bring a pause. On Sunday, the papers will try to finish Hancock off with some new revelation. The Prime Minister will be hoping that, by avoiding Cummings’ non-apology, enough has been done to appease those restive backbenchers.
Maybe the gambit will work and maybe it won’t. But either way, the Health Secretary needs to get himself on those Sunday morning political programmes. Better still would be Andrew Neil, if the latter’s holiday hasn’t yet started.
Viewers won’t previously have known who Coladangelo is. Or about her appointment. Now, they will want an explanation. And to know why Hancock believes that an apology for breaking lockdown rules is good enough.
A brief statement doesn’t justify him staying in post. It’s up to him now to do so in person. Before he faces the Commons next week.