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OP-ED: Affairs of state

  • Published at 07:06 am July 6th, 2021
matt hancock

Can public figures be entitled to a private life?

One of the few things to distract the British public from the football or the tennis at Wimbledon this week has been the resignation of a cabinet minister from the government after what was called a “sex scandal.” It raises, once again, that thorny old moral dilemma as to whether a politician or indeed anyone in public life is entitled to a private life.

The question stems from the luckless (and now former) secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock, who was caught on CCTV kissing and groping one of his female aides. Both Hancock and the woman at the centre of the scandal, Gina Coladangelo, are married to other people and have three children each. 

By all accounts, both Coladangelo’s husband, Oliver Tress, and Hancock’s wife, Martha, were unaware of the affair until the story broke and both believed that, up until that point, they had happy marriages. 

Hancock apparently woke up his eight year old child to tell him he was leaving the family home. The former minister and his mistress are now said to be planning to set up home together. 

As soon as the story was all over the press and social media, Hancock met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson who declared that the affair was a private issue and as far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. 

Well, he would say that wouldn’t he? Given Johnson’s own track record on extra-marital affairs, he is hardly going to take the moral high ground over Hancock’s adulterous dalliance.

Only the matter wasn’t closed. Under intense pressure from his fellow Tory MPs and the media, Hancock resigned last Saturday. In an extraordinary video posted on Twitter, the MP said he was stepping down not because he was a proven adulterer who had been caught on camera, not because he had betrayed his wife and children, but because he had broken the rules on social distancing with someone not in his “bubble.”    

These, of course, were the very rules which Hancock himself had drawn up and which he had -- endlessly -- urged the rest of us to follow on pain of a fine or possible imprisonment. 

So what is worse: The sin of hypocrisy or the sin of adultery? Clearly for his party and the public at large, it was the former. 

But let us examine the facts a little more closely here. Hancock and Coladangelo have been friends since they were at Oxford University together. After they married their respective partners, the two families became close and regularly socialized together. 

In 2019, when Hancock was running for the leadership of the Conservative party, Coladangelo served as his campaign manager. When he was appointed health secretary, she was brought in as a “special advisor.” 

Later, she was appointed as a non-executive director in the Department of Health and Social Care employed for 15 days work a year at a salary, paid by the British taxpayer, of £15,000 per annum. 

The job of a non-executive director in government is a bit like a school governor in relation to a school principal: They are there to scrutinize the policies, work, and progress (or otherwise) of the minister. That must have been awkward when the minister in question was your lover.

So, now we add cronyism, as well as adultery and hypocrisy to the list, and that’s before we even mention the lies that Hancock told when he said that he had thrown a “protective ring” around care homes at the start of the pandemic. 

The truth is he oversaw the discharge of thousands of elderly patients, many of them with Covid-19, from hospitals into these homes where hundreds of them died needlessly. 

Then there was the failure to provide sufficient PPE for NHS staff, the handing out of contracts to friends, the use of his private email for government business … the list goes on. Even Boris Johnson in a telling leaked WhatsApp message a few weeks ago, called Hancock “hopeless.”

The list of failures is impressive even by this government’s standards. Yet whatever Hancock’s failures as a secretary of state, it is surely nothing compared to his failure as a husband and father. When he resigned, Boris Johnson hinted to his errant colleague that he was sure he would be back in government very soon. 

I sincerely hope not. A man who cheats on his wife with a family friend, who wakes his unsuspecting small son up to tell him he is quitting the family home, is not a man fit for office of any description. 

Coincidentally, it was exactly 60 years ago this week, that the 48-year-old Conservative Minister of War, John Profumo, met a 19-year-old model called Christine Keeler. The two began a secret affair which ultimately led to the fall of the-then government. 

When the scandal was made public, Profumo at first denied it and lied to the parliament. Later, however, he confessed, and resigned from politics. He spent the rest of his life helping the underprivileged of London’s East End.  His wife remained by his side and in 1975, in recognition for his selfless charity work, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire(CBE). 

Perhaps Matt Hancock should take a leaf out of Profumo’s book and show a little humility, admit his mistakes, and try to do something for those less fortunate than himself to atone for his misdeeds. 

But somehow I think he won’t.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.