The cabinet blame game has begun – but Matt Hancock may yet escape unscathed | Katy Balls | Opinion

When Boris Johnson was recovering in hospital after his admission to intensive care, he was advised not to work. There was no suggestion this time from No 10 that he would even be supplied with a red box. The prime minister’s decision to work remotely following his coronavirus diagnosis seemed misjudged given how he deteriorated, so there was an effort to get him to watch films rather than look at paperwork. However, he did manage to call a handful of ministers – one of whom was Matt Hancock.

The beleaguered health secretary has been in the news this week as a potential “fall guy” for the government over its handling of coronavirus. Among the hostile briefings, a No 10 source complained to the Telegraph that Hancock’s promise in a press conference earlier this month of 100,000 tests by the end of the month would “come back to bite him” and suggested the figure was “arbitrary”. Meanwhile, senior Tories are speculating that he will be moved from his brief before any public inquiry.

While Hancock is the minister most clearly in the firing line, there has been a change over the past week. As the prime minister’s health has improved, MPs and ministers have become more loose-lipped when it comes to concerns over the government strategy and lockdown – with senior Tories kicking off about the economic impact of lockdown and a growing cabinet debate over the exit strategy.

In recent weeks, there has been annoyance within the government at the 100,000 test target. When Hancock made that promise at a press conference in early April, it followed a few days of bad headlines for the government which included mixed messaging and an uninspiring performance from the business secretary, Alok Sharma, the day before.

Hancock’s high energy performance, after which he took follow-up questions from assembled journalists for the first time, won immediate plaudits from the media. But it irked many who had been working behind the scenes and in other departments. There was a sense that the health secretary was enjoying the limelight a little too much.

This Downing Street likes to pride itself on not dancing to the media’s tune, but announcing a timelined target was seen in some quarters as an example of doing just that. Although the prime minister had previously spoken about 250,000 tests, he had not given the same hard deadline. While the government still believes it could reach 100,000 capacity by the end of the month, getting that many people to take the tests will be more difficult. At the moment, around half the capacity is going unused each day. And any failure on testing will be used to paint a picture of a government on the back foot over coronavirus.

While Hancock may not be minister of the month – he’s also not enemy No 1. And in the weeks ahead, No 10 and the Department of Health are likely to form an important alliance when it comes to the exit strategy. The expectation in the government is that so long as his recovery continues, it will now be the prime minister who makes the final decision on easing lockdown in a few weeks.

When it comes to the whole cabinet – not just the four ministers (Hancock, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove) who lead the coronavirus subcommittees – it is currently weighted in favour of a significant easing of lockdown measures in three weeks’ time.

One of the reasons Hancock has received a hostile reception from his cabinet colleagues is that he is viewed as the chief lockdown “dove” of the cabinet – the minister who is the most cautious about easing any restrictions. This is in many ways natural as his brief is health – just as so-called hawk Sunak’s is the economy.

Inside the government there is frustration that the ministers not involved in the day-to-day decisions have taken to knocking those who are in the engine room. “There are two types of people during a pandemic: those who spend all their time dealing with a pandemic and those who aren’t involved and spend their time complaining,” says a government source.

Hancock could soon have an important ally in the prime minister. While Johnson is not back in Downing Street, he has met with his top team and is said to be very cautious about easing the lockdown. Ministers who had thought Johnson’s return would help the cause of the hawks look set to be disappointed. Although there is still an expectation of some movement, the priority is avoiding a second peak of cases.

While Hancock looks set to have support in the coming weeks, there’s another reason to expect him not to be the scapegoat in any government inquiry. Blaming a Tory minister in that forum would be an implicit acceptance that the whole strategy was flawed. “It won’t be blue-on-blue,” says one government figure.

Instead, as becomes clearer with each press conference and each rebuttal, any defence will be focused on the scientific guidance. Already there are concerns among scientists that they could be in the firing line. The Tories in the line of fire are more likely to be figures from the Theresa May ministry. Questions are being repeatedly asked about the lack of government preparedness for a pandemic – but much of that goes back a few years.

Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

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