MATT Hancock’s career at the top of the Conservative Party was hanging by a thread last night as he was engulfed in a sleaze scandal.
The shock development follows a torrid 18 months for the Health Secretary in which he has been battling the Covid pandemic — even catching it himself last year.
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Mr Hancock has spent the past few weeks dodging claims he bungled his handling of the bug — and was left embarrassed over leaked texts in which the PM branded him “f***ing hopeless”.
Just this week, the Queen was overheard describing the exhausted minister as a “poor man” but still “full of promise”.
Despite the runaway success of the vaccine rollout, it was already shaping up to be a bruising summer for the usually energetic Tory amid rumours he was for the chop at a pending reshuffle.
He has been dogged by “chumocracy” claims that he had hired his mates and given party donors special VIP access to Covid contracts.
Earlier this month, he was hauled before MPs for a gruelling evidence session to defend his record.
But it is our bombshell revelation today that will be cricket-mad Matt’s toughest wicket yet.
He has been privately canoodling with a glamorous pal he hired as his aide — in the very office from which he is meant to be leading Britain’s response to the virus.
After a meteoric rise through the backrooms of Westminster, he even had a tilt at the party leadership in 2019 — but bowed out to Boris Johnson after a poor show of support from colleagues.
Already in his third cabinet post, aged just 42, he has had a relatively blemish-free career until this year.
Like many a Tory MP before him, he drifted from an elite public school to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics — the training manual for Britain’s modern political class.
It was at Oxford that his path first crossed with Gina Coladangelo, a fellow undergraduate who would remain a close pal for the next two decades.
But it was his fateful decision to hire her — first as an unpaid adviser last April and then as a £15,000-a-year non-executive director at the Health Department — that could yet be his undoing.
After a masters at Cambridge in economics, Mr Hancock walked into a plum job at the Bank of England.
While at Threadneedle Street, the rising star first caught the eye of the Conservative Shadow Chancellor at the time, George Osborne.
And the lure of Westminster was too much for the nerdy twenty-something to resist.
In 2006, Mr Osborne drafted the young whizzkid in to be his top adviser.
But it was soon clear to colleagues that Matt was not content on a career in the shadows and eyed his own path to power.
He married Martha, an osteopath, in 2006 and the pair have three children together.
Elected MP for the ultra-safe seat of West Suffolk in 2010, he set his eyes on climbing the greasy pole as quickly as possible
Sticking close to his powerful mentor Mr Osborne, he quickly drew ire from jealous colleagues who could see Matt destined for the fast track.
One joke levelled at other ambitious MPs back then was they were “so far up George Osborne’s a*** they could see Matt Hancock’s shoes”.
Although he made enemies, the blessing of Mr Osborne soon saw him on the Government payroll, first as a junior minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2013, entering the Cabinet in 2016 as Minister for the Cabinet Office.
Under Mr Osborne’s guidance, he voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, and looked to be in the wilderness when his political godfather was dramatically sacked by new PM Theresa May in the wake of the historic vote.
He accepted a demotion to a junior role at Culture, winning him plaudits as other key figures flounced off to the backbenches — and going some way to countering his Westminster reputation as an arrogant upstart.
And his loyalty to the party and the new PM was rewarded with a Cabinet return in 2018 as Culture Secretary, and a massive promotion to Health shortly after.
While seen as a “safe pair of hands” in Cabinet, regularly tasked with tricky media performances defending the Government, the pandemic that began to engulf Britain early in 2020 would be Mr Hancock’s biggest test.
A regular face seen fronting Government press conferences, with boundless enthusiasm for the jabs rollout, that handling of the crisis has come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks as a massive row with No10 exploded into public view.
Mr Hancock is one of the most powerful officials in government and a member of the “quad” of Cabinet ministers who determine Covid-19 policy.
Some even credit him with persuading the PM to return to a second lockdown.
But two weeks ago, astonishing private WhatsApp messages leaked by sacked No10 aide Dominic Cummings showed Boris had branded Mr Hancock “totally f***ing hopeless” in the darkest days of March 2020.
The vengeful Mr Cummings published a 7,000-word blog laden with messages from the PM complaining about the Health Secretary’s handling of the Covid crisis, and said he should have been sacked for dozens of reasons.
One message from March 2020 shows Mr Cummings complaining to the Prime Minister about Mr Hancock’s handling of Britain’s testing programme.
The PM bluntly replies: “Totally f***ing hopeless.”
Mr Johnson later blasted attempts to buy more PPE as a “disaster” and suggested Mr Hancock be stripped of responsibility.
In a message from April 2020, the PM said: “I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting Michael Gove on.”
When questioned about Mr Cummings’s allegations by MPs probing the pandemic fall-out, Mr Hancock hit back alleging that the Prime Minister’s former top aide had briefed newspapers against him.
He told reporters that “governing has been easier” since Mr Cummings was forced out late last year.
And he has repeatedly challenged Mr Cummings to “put up or shut up” with evidence he lied about discharging elderly hospital patients to care homes in the early days of the pandemic without proper testing.
Mr Hancock looked to be over the worst of the crisis before today.
As well as facing accusations his department had wasted billions on a shaky Test and Trace system, spending watchdogs also criticised multi-million pound contracts for PPE that failed to materialise.
He was also found to have committed a “minor breach” of the ministerial rule book after failing to declare his 20 per cent stake in his sister’s company that was awarded a Covid contract.
No stranger to tough questions, the Health Secretary now faces his toughest grilling yet.
While Boris has thrown a protective arm around him so far amid the firestorm of claims from Mr Cummings, No10 may not have the political capital to save Matt this time.