The political comeback: is anything fatal now?
Some politicians can return from the biggest setbacks and time heals almost any wounds; can any scandal end a career now, or will we forgive anything?
A senior MP said to me recently “There’s always a way back.” We weren’t talking about politics, as it happens, but the subject is never far from my mind, and it set me thinking. The thoughts began to cohere when I read earlier on Twitter that Andrew Cuomo, who resigned as governor of New York in 2021 facing a string of accusations of sexual misconduct, is considering the mechanics of a comeback. It may just be a rumour, but I was taken aback: the misdeeds of which he was accused were numerous and came on several fronts, and he resigned with little grace and only under intense external pressure, yet already, 19 months after he quit the stage, his mind has already turned to the next chapter of his career. It is jaw-dropping chutzpah, which does not mean that it cannot succeed.
I don’t want to launch into a rose-spectacles-wearing episode of how things were better in the old days, but we have to acknowledge that things have changed. There was a time when to resign senior office was to assume a burden of responsibility and to accept that taking that responsibility could be professionally fatal. Comebacks were possible, but there were no guarantees, and resignations were certainly not undertaken in the coldly tactical way in which they are often embraced now.
For example, Joseph Chamberlain, the charismatic Birmingham industrialist who was one of the titans of the Victorian Liberal Party before breaking with it over home rule for Ireland, resigned from the Conservative-led coalition cabinet in September 1903 so that he could champion his pet project of “imperial preference” (effectively protectionism in trade within the British Empire). He was perhaps the most powerful politician in the country at the time, certainly capable of outshining the brilliant but languid A.J. Balfour, the prime minister from 1902 to 1905, and a class above the Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. He left the cabinet to embrace a cause, and, while he certainly still had considerable ambition, he knew nothing was guaranteed. There was a brief flash of light when Balfour lost his East Manchester seat at the 1906 general election, and for 19 days Chamberlain was leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, but a few months later he was felled by a serious stroke. He never fully recovered, was never well enough to hold office again, and died a few weeks before the First World War began in 1914.
Another sacrifice of a career was made by the Irish Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson. One of the most powerful orators of his time, he had tied his fate to that of opposition to home rule for a united Ireland, and became the figurehead of the Protestant Unionists of Northern Ireland. In July 1917, he was brought into the war cabinet by David Lloyd George as minister without portfolio, but could not accept a decision by the government to grant home rule to all 32 counties of Ireland in return for extending conscription to the island. He therefore resigned in January 1918, and did not hold ministerial office again, though he lived until 1935. In May 1921, he was appointed a lord of appeal in ordinary (law lord) and more or less gave up politics.
There were routes back to office in those seemingly more honourable days. Winston Churchill was famously blamed for the disastrous military campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915, and his removal as first lord of the Admiralty was one of the Conservatives’ conditions for joining the coalition government in May that year. He was demoted to chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster but resigned that office in frustration in November. Quixotically but characteristically, he volunteered for active service in the Army and spent three months in the trenches near Ploegsteert. His life, let alone his career, was in danger, but Churchill was always, in the end, lucky, and by July 1917 he was back in the government as minister of munitions.
Even mere mortals, unlike Churchill, could survive and return. Sir John Simon, a brilliant but chilly Liberal barrister, rose swiftly to become home secretary at the age of 42 in May 1915 (the same reshuffle which saw Churchill banished from the Admiralty) but resigned at the beginning of the following year in protest at the introduction of the first tranche of conscription. It was an honourable stance: he simply felt compulsion was incompatible with Liberal principles. Some colleagues harboured similar doubts but managed to reconcile them with remaining in office. He celebrated his 43rd birthday as a backbencher, and that might have been the end of Simon. He even lost his seat in the 1918 general election, remaining loyal to H.H. Asquith as an official Liberal and being defeated by a Unionist candidate endorsed by Lloyd George. But at the general election of 1922, he returned to the House of Commons, and for two years served as Asquith’s deputy leader. In November 1931, he joined the National government as foreign secretary, and would go on to be home secretary, chancellor of the Exchequer and lord chancellor (a unique combination).
One differentiation, of course, is the reason for a ministerial resignation. Chamberlain, Carson and Simon had resigned on matters of principle, while Churchill had been eased out gradually because of his culpability for a major military setback. Obviously to quit office honourably, in defence of a belief or policy, leaves the former minister with a sheen of respectability. To go or be forced out because of a mistake, or, worse, a misdemeanour casts a shadow on the departing politico. The chances of recovering from the former would therefore be higher, one would assume, than those of someone who takes responsibility for an error.
Even that, however, is not an insurmountable obstacle. It is Budget week, so there has been some talk of the fate of Hugh Dalton, appointed chancellor of the Exchequer in Attlee’s post-war Labour government. On his way into the House of Commons to deliver the Budget statement in November 1947, he made a passing remark to a journalist which disclosed some of the tax changes he was about to announce. It was a matter of hours only, but the journalist was able to get his scoop into the early evening edition of the newspaper which was printed before Dalton had finished his statement. The stock market was still open, and the information had been market-sensitive, so Dalton had to resign. One might note the degree to which the contents of the Budget are informally revealed before the chancellor’s statement nowadays. On the face of it, Dalton recovered quickly; there was sympathy for his misfortune as well as his misjudgement, and in May 1948 Attlee rehabilitated him as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In 1950, he became minister of town and country planning, but his influence was dwindled. He was no longer a major figure in the government, having been one of its big hitters when at the Treasury, and much of that diminution of status was due to his resignation and period, however short, out of office.
Resignations on principle could still go either way. Peter Thorneycroft resigned as chancellor of the Exchequer in January 1958 in protest at what he saw as excessive government expenditure, taking his two junior ministers, Enoch Powell and Nigel Birch, with him. It is now seen as one of the first sparks of monetarism in British politics, and for a while it seemed that the government might be seriously damaged. But the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, leaned heavily on his image as an insouciant Edwardian gentleman, dismissing the departure of the whole Treasury team as “a little local difficulties” before leaving for a Commonwealth tour, and the crisis passed. Thorneycroft did indeed recover: in 1960 he returned to the cabinet as minister of aviation, became minister of defence in 1962 and then served as the first secretary of state for defence in 1964. It even looked like he might regain his status as a big beast, when Edward Heath made him shadow home secretary in 1965, but he lost his Monmouth seat at the general election the following year, at the age of only 56. He then accepted a peerage and called time on his active career, but enjoyed an Indian summer as chairman of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. He served from 1975 to 1981, and oversaw the election victory in 1979.
(Powell, who had been financial secretary to the Treasury under Thorneycroft, also returned to office, though only to the middling cabinet post of minister of health, before finding fame as a backbencher after his notorious Birmingham speech in April 1968. Birch was never rehabilitated, and felt the wound sharply: in a debate in the Commons on the Profumo affair in 1963 he attacked the ailing Macmillan, finally achieving revenge as he quoted Robert Browning’s The Lost Leader to the House in savage style. “‘Never glad, confident morning again’,” he spat. “So I hope that the change will not be too long delayed.”)
Modern resignations can come in many forms. The Heath government (1970-74) was unusual in seeing only departures from cabinet: the home secretary Reginald Maudling stepped down in 1972 as he became entangled in a scandal surrounding the architect John Poulson, with whom he had had some sloppy but probably not corrupt business relationships, and in 1973 the leader of the House of Lords, Earl Jellicoe, an insanely brave wartime special forces officer, resigned after admitting some casual affairs with prostitutes which were felt to have represented a potential security risk.
Some departures are undertaken with hopes for the future very much in mind. Michael Heseltine resigned as defence secretary in 1986 ostensibly because of a disagreement over the potential sale of the Westland helicopter manufacturer, but it had been clear to many colleagues that Heseltine could not exist too much longer in Margaret Thatcher’s government. Their styles were just too different, and their long-term policy views diverging too much. Although Heseltine quit unexpectedly, during a cabinet meeting—his colleagues were not even at first clear if he was going to come back—he harboured strong, and not dishonourable, ambitions for the premiership, and was clearly not going to succeed Thatcher as her designated crown prince. Instead he left office, and spent nearly five years sketching out a distinct position as well as cultivating the grass roots of the party. It nearly worked. When Thatcher seemed vulnerable in November 1990, weakened by the controversy of the community charge and increasingly regarded by backbenchers as a potential electoral liability, he challenged her for the leadership of the party. But he failed to follow Machiavelli’s advice and did not deal a fatal blow, and it was John Major who emerged from the battle to succeed the Iron Lady. Heseltine returned to cabinet and served for another six-and-a-half years, rising to be a notably powerful deputy prime minister, but he had failed in his ultimate ambition.
Similar calculations were made, albeit by proxy, under Gordon Brown. When the long-time heir to Blair succeeded to the highest office in 2007, he enjoyed a short honeymoon but the mood soon soured, as it transpired that he was fundamentally unsuited by personality for the leadership, and, extraordinarily, the man who had craved the position for so long seemed to have few big ideas of what to do once he attained it. His premiership creaked in crisis in the summer of 2009, with Blairites realising that Brown might lead them to electoral disaster and that the window to replace him before the general election due in 2010 was closing quickly. The sense of panic was deepened when Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, and Hazel Blears, the communities and local government secretary, had to resign because of improper claiming of expenses. In despair and, I suspect, a degree of desperation, the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell, a smooth, fluent, media-savvy Blairite, resigned his position and wrote to Brown citing his leadership as the reason for his departure. He was, he said, “calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning”. Although he denied being part of a plot, there was a hope that Brown would be overwhelmed by the unrest and leave Downing Street, to be replaced by someone more “attractive” like the foreign secretary, David Miliband. But Brown survived, just, and persevered until the general election of May 2010, when he was forced to cede office to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Labour have been out of power ever since.
Boris Johnson, whether by luck or good judgement, made a better fist of it. Having served two terms as mayor of London (2008-16), he returned to the House of Commons and was appointed foreign secretary when Theresa May replaced David Cameron in 2016. Johnson made little secret of the fact that he wanted to be prime minister, having said in 2013 that “if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum, which it won’t of course, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at”. He had withdrawn from the race to succeed Cameron after his Leave campaign ally, Michael Gove, unexpected declared that he “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”, but it was clearly unfinished business. He resigned from the cabinet in July 2018 over the government’s proposed Brexit strategy, and when May finally stepped down in 2019, he entered the race as front-runner, and beat Jeremy Hunt in the final membership vote by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. For once, a resignation aimed at seizing the crown had worked.
One other sort of ministerial resignation, a very rare beast indeed, deserves a mention. Estelle Morris came to Westminster with a strong pedigree: her father, Charlie Morris, was Labour MP for Manchester Openshaw from 1963 to 1983 and a minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, while her uncle, Alf Morris, was the world’s first minister for disabled people from 1974 to 1979. She won Birmingham Yardley from the Conservatives in 1992, became an education minister in 1997, and after the 2001 general election was promoted to secretary of state for education and skills. It was noted that she was the first former teacher in a comprehensive school to head the department; one of her tutors said that she was “a Blairite before Blair”, “interested in making things work” rather than devoted to ideology. She was polite and diligent—“almost like one of the Famous Five”, a colleague remarked—and knew the field well. A BBC profile of her in 2001 concluded “Too nice? Don’t bank on it.”
Somehow, though, Morris never settled in her job. The past would come back to haunt her: in 1999, when school standards minister, she had promised to resign if literacy and numeracy targets were not met. It was a promise of the sort that ministers often make rashly and with bravado, but in the summer of 2002 there was a furore over the regrading of exams and it seemed as if the target she had set had been missed. Then, in October, she did something almost without parallel or precedent: Morris wrote to the prime minister, offering her resignation on the grounds that she was simply not up to the job. Her resignation letter was excoriatingly honest:
I’ve learned what I’m good at and also what I’m less good at. I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media… I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be.
It was an astonishing piece of self-analysis. And it voiced an unspoken truth. Not every MP will be a good minister, and not every minister will be a good secretary of state. Yet we maintain the fiction that most should be striving for cabinet rank, regardless of policy area, and that all ministers are, or should aspire to be, all-rounders. Few really are, and the difference is striking.
(Morris did, in the end, come back. In 2003, she was appointed arts minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, a more relaxed posting than her previous billet, but she resigned again in September 2004. This time she criticised Tony Blair, lamenting “I don't think we’ve delivered on the new style of politics… there’s too much about soundbites and headlines”. She had become disillusioned, and left the House of Commons at the following election, being ennobled as Baroness Morris of Yardley and moving into academia and the quangocracy.)
Misdeeds can still be fatal for a ministerial career. In December 2017, Damian Green, first secretary of state and Theresa May’s unofficial deputy prime minister, had to resign after months of scandal which had claimed the careers of several ministers over sexually inappropriate behaviour; Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, and Christopher Pincher, a senior whip, both left the government before Green’s turn. He was also accused of having viewed pornography on a work computer. Perhaps his “One Nation” views and pro-European stance made a return to government impossible given the direction of travel in Conservative ideology, or perhaps the grubbiness of the accusations against him made it an unappetising task to rehabilitate him. Last month, he failed to secure the nomination for the successor constituency to his Kent seat, and will probably leave the Commons at the next election. Fate has allowed him one late flowering, however: when the chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Julian Knight, was accused of (you’ve guessed it) sexual misconduct at the end of last year and stepped down temporarily from his post, the members chose Green to step into the breach as acting chair.
Essentially, in the current era, an MP who resigns as a minister can have a reasonable expectation of making a comeback, though not necessarily without a loss of seniority. (The unwritten rules are different for peers, I think, partly because they tend to have lower public profiles but also because they tend not to have any political constituencies, an exception being Lord Frost. He resigned in December 2021 and has tried to reinvent himself as the authentic voice of right-wing Conservatism, though it has not resulted in a return to office.) The most influential factor seems to be not the gravity of the offence for which one has resigned, but whether, after a supposedly decent interval of time, one still sails with the prevailing ideological wind. Oliver Dowden, for example, resigned last June as party chairman after two disastrous by-election results, but was recalled in October when Rishi Sunak formed his administration, taking charge of the Cabinet Office. On the other hand, Esther McVey, then work and pensions secretary, resigned in November 2018 over Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal. Although she made a brief return as a minister of state from 2019 to 2020, she has not been rehabilitated, despite a high profile and distinctive persona, as she now finds herself out of sympathy with the government: McVey is against High Speed 2, criticised many of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations and has championed an unashamedly populist platform of low taxation, a tough stance on immigration and parental rights to withdraw children from sex education.
This all has some contemporary relevance because of the awkward, needy figure of Matt Hancock. The former health secretary was absolutely bang to rights when he was forced into resignation in June 2021, having flagrantly breached his own Covid-19 regulations to pursue an affair with one of his advisers (and an old university friend), Gina Coladangelo. It was a vivid and cringeworthy departure, including CCTV footage of the pair grappling lustfully in Hancock’s ministerial office, and represented the downfall of a man who had always had an air of the sort of overeager person you try but fail to avoid at university reunions. He apologised for “letting people down”, and party chairman Amanda Milling suggested the scandal was partly to blame for the Conservatives’ failure to win the Batley and Spen by-election a few days afterwards.
Hancock is nothing if not resilient, however. George Osborne, to whom he had been chief of staff in the late 2000s, described him as “a Tigger in a world of Eeyores”. So it was, with stultifying predictability, that Hancock was soon chasing redemption. In October 2021, only four months after his ignominious fall from grace, he announced that he had been appointed UN special representative on financial innovation and climate change for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. It was an unpaid role but carried the lustre of the UN and the hint of modernisation and forward thinking on which he had based much of his career to that point. In an appointment letter, the executive secretary to the commission, Vera Songwe, praised the “success of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the acceleration of vaccines” as a “testament” to Hancock’s abilities. If Hancock was eager to spread this news far and wide, one can perhaps forgive him that; after all it paid tribute to his “global leadership, advocacy reach and in depth understanding of government processes through your various ministerial cabinet roles”.
There were two problems. On the same day as he tweeted his glowing appointment letter, the House of Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees released a joint report which was sharply critical of the government’s response to the pandemic. If this made the former health secretary’s appointment difficult, a rule emerged from the bowels of the UN which made it impossible: his prospective role could not be carried out by a member of a national legislature, so he would have to stand down as MP for West Suffolk to take it up, which he was not inclined to do. Four days after the offer was publicised, the United Nations rescinded it, to general embarrassment.
Hancock has plenty of determination, however, and little to no shame. In February 2022, he was the guest on Dragon’s Den star Steven Bartlett’s podcast The Diary of a CEO (the term is interpreted broadly), clad in a black turtleneck and ill-fitting skinny jeans. He was at pains to place his affair with Coladangelo in context, telling the host he “fell in love” rather than having a simple extramarital affair, and carefully tried to shape the narrative of his resignation: “I resigned because I broke the social distancing guidelines. By then they weren’t actually rules, they weren’t the law, but that’s not the point.” It was not universally well received: ITV’s Lorraine Kelly described Hancock as a “pound-shop Milk Tray man”, while Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer was typically blunt, tweeting “You betrayed your wife and kids. Call it what it was: adultery.” One member of the public spoken for thousands:
I genuinely can’t bring myself to watch that Matt Hancock interview clip. I know it’ll make me want to claw my own face off.
In November 2022, Hancock announced that he would be a contestant on the 22nd series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, to be filmed while Parliament was sitting. This was not, alas, unprecedented; the irrepressible Nadine Dorries had taken part in the 12th series of the show, 10 years before, without informing the chief whip, and had been suspended from the Conservative Party for a while as a result. Hancock was widely criticised, including by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, Lord Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and several Covid-19 families’ groups, and, like Dorries, had the whip removed. The parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, reported receiving “dozens” of complaints, while Ofcom received 1,100.
Hancock’s stated intention in appearing on the show was to raise awareness about childhood dyslexia, from which he had suffered, and proclaimed his aim “to help every dyslexic child unleash their potential—even if it means taking an unusual route to get there, via the Australian jungle!” He also (perhaps unwisely) expressed the desire to show his “human side”. His campaign while on the show was underwhelming and many thought that his appearance was simply another method of rehabilitating his reputation, however misguided. He finished third, less roundly condemned than many expected, but it can hardly be said to have advertised him as un homme serieux.
This brings Hancock’s career almost up to date. In December last year, he published Pandemic Diaries: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle Against Covid, co-written with Isabel Oakeshott. It is an odd book, not based on contemporaneous diaries but on passages reconstructed from memory, and it is hardly surprising that the author is largely exonerated from blame. Dominic Cummings is heavily criticised. But overall the book was perceived as another exercise in reputation management, giving Hancock a sense of hindsight which was not borne out by the record. Rachel Cunliffe, writing in The New Statesman, was politely damning:
“When I woke up today I was briefly unable to distinguish fiction from reality,” he writes. It shows. He should probably have figured that out before writing this book.
Nor was the public any more enthusiastic than the critics. The book sold a modest 3,304 copies in its first week on sale, dropping to 600 in its second. It entered the official book chart at 191, and within a week had fallen out of the top 1,000.
Isabel Oakeshott, however, moved to assuage any disappointment she may have felt. To write the book, Hancock had given her access to 100,000 WhatsApp messages, and last month she disclosed these to The Daily Telegraph, which has run several stories based on their contents. Oakeshott claimed to worry that the official public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic would be a “whitewash” and was proceeding too slowly, thereby absolving herself of any responsibilities of confidentiality or trust. The disclosures have not shown Hancock in a better light. No-one is a hero to his valet, they say, and the same may be true of one’s WhatsApp history, as every thought process and flippant remark is preserved and each is given equal weight and importance.
Of WhatsApp itself, Hancock wrote “Let’s use this when we need to move fast, so we’re all on the same page at all times”. One can agree or disagree, but it is at least a defensible point of view, especially as the pandemic was unpredictable and ever-changing. Nevertheless, he is often betrayed as a fool or a knave, whether it is seeking to edit ministerial answers to written parliamentary questions to conceal the attendance of his lover, Gina Coladangelo, at official dinners, or joking about the widespread conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 vaccine contained a microchip provided by Bill Gates (“He owes me one!” the then-health secretary chortled).
Matt Hancock must, of course, weather the storm, however violent, of the public inquiry into Covid-19 which is being chaired by Baroness Hallett. But, like any self-respecting public inquiry, this one will not be rushed, and does not start taking evidence formally until June this year. Remember that Lord Saville of Newdigate’s Bloody Sunday inquiry took 12 years to unpick the actions of a single day, while it was nearly seven years between the beginning of the Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot and the publication of its report. These wheels do not grind quickly. In parliamentary terms, Hancock cruised home in 2019 with a majority of 23,194, but he announced in December last year that he will not seek re-election in 2024 (or whenever the next election comes).
Is there life after extra-marital sex and eating a cow’s anus on national television? (Of the latter, he noted “The texture’s terrible”.) Whether out of genuine belief or a desire to manage expectations, Hancock has already pondered whether Westminster is still the centre of public life (answer: yes) and if there are other ways to (re)connect with the electorate.
There was a time when I thought the only way to influence the public debate was in Parliament, but I’ve realised there’s far more to it than that. I have increasingly come to believe that for a healthy democracy we must find new ways to reach people—especially those who are disengaged with politics. The revival of modern conservatism over the next decade will I suspect take place as much outside Parliament as in it.
This is very much of a piece with Hancock’s career so far: desperate to seem modern, dynamic and able to think unconventionally and creatively. It is even, in its own way, a good question: there is certainly an enormous disenchantment with politics and politicians, and with the traditional institutions of Westminster and Whitehall. It has already begun to be explored by genuinely creative figures like Rory Stewart and Maurice Glasman. One should be fair: Hancock is a young man—not yet 45—and clearly does not lack for energy or self-belief. One should not underestimate the value of these qualities in modern politics.
Can he really be taken seriously? It is hard to see how. He is now a figure of fun as much as of opprobrium, and mockery is more dangerous in politics (Caligula knew that hatred was manageable). By deciding to leave the Commons, he has forsworn the most obvious platform and route to office and influence (though perhaps his constituency association would not have reselected him in any case). He has no patron to nominate him to the House of Lords, and anyway a peerage circumscribes the extent of the office one can hold. He seems a busted flush, and the only remaining task is for him to realise that.
And yet. It is hardly a Nobel Prize, but coming third in I’m A Celebrity… was not a meagre achievement. He went into the jungle despised and ridiculed in equal parts, and it seemed then, and clearly was, a fairly shameless attempt at rehabilitation. He declared his desire to raise awareness of child dyslexia, yet barely mentioned the issue once he was there (though he found time to discuss Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and, inevitably, his relationship). But, inexplicable though some of us may find it, there was something about him which forged a bond with viewers. Perhaps he was kept in the competition to subject him to more and more challenges, to see him suffer, but there was some kind of connection. If Hancock could emphasise the goofy-but-relatable aspect of his personality, harness his energy and enthusiasm and downplay to self-absorption and sheer weirdness, it is not impossible that he could find an audience. The question is, how large.
We come back to where we started. “There’s always a way back.” As former ministers go, Hancock is pushing the maxim to extremes. If he fails, there will be little surprise and, one must admit, precious little sorrow. If he succeeds, however, it must surely prove that anything is possible.