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Inside The Decades Old Rivalry That Fuelled Dominic Cummings' Savaging Of Matt Hancock Over Covid

4 min read

Dominic Cummings’ no-holds-barred character assassination of Matt Hancock betrayed an apparent loathing of the health secretary during Wednesday’s seven hour evidence session in Westminster on the handling of the pandemic.

But the feud long predates the Covid-19 crisis. Cummings has spent the best part of 15 years coming up against Hancock in the political sphere, with the relationship growing ever more acrimonious over time, PoliticsHome has learnt. 

“It’s actually not too dissimilar to the Johnson and Gove dynamic,” a veteran ex-Westminster staffer said. 

“You’ve got a nemesis and you’re in each other’s universe for a long, long, time. With Hancock and Cummings it’s basically like the film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane – it’s the old rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – then they get put in the same film together.”

“They’re really just two extremes. There’s the Brexiteer, and the establishment figure who is in awe of the establishment.”

Another former government staff member said Cummings’s fixation on Hancock’s position in government was “weird and unjustified” and had been going on for years with Cummings never being able to move past Hancock being David Cameron and George Osborne’s original poster boy.

According to insiders in government at the time, the pair first came into each other’s space professionally in the 2000s as relative equals when Hancock was appointed chief of staff to then shadow chancellor Osborne. Cummings was an adviser to Michael Gove, then the shadow minister for children, schools and families.

“Matt did rub a lot of people up the wrong way back then,” the veteran ex-staffer said. “He enjoyed George’s patronage and was cocky and lorded it over people. He’s changed an awful lot since then but that’s how it was.”

Another former government staffer said: “Dom has known him for more than a decade and a half and saw him as part of the Cameron clique 15 years ago.

“No-one thinks about Hancock as the 'Cameron guy, the Osborne guy' anymore but Dom doesn’t seem to be able to move past that.” 

Despite his reputation for irritating colleagues, Hancock was given a “plum seat” in West Suffolk at the 2010 general election by Cameron, the source said, but at that point things started to go badly for Cummings and his proximity to power.

When Gove was appointed Education Secretary following the Conservatives’ election to government in 2010, Andy Coulson, then director of Downing Street communications, blocked him from bringing Cummings – already Gove’s trusted adviser – along into government.

But after the phone hacking scandal pushed Coulson out of No.10 in 2011, Cummings was appointed Gove’s adviser again.

According to sources Cummings and Hancock really began to butt heads at the Department for Education when Hancock was a junior minister for skills, split between education and the then-department for Business, Innovation and Skills between 2012 and 2013. Those with knowledge of the junior minister-spad dynamic in that department said at that point, Cummings was more senior partner.

“At the DfE Hancock was a loyal minister, whereas Dom spent most of his time telling No.10 to ‘fuck off’. The fact he had a minister who he knew had a good relation with No.10, he probably hated [that],” a former government staffer said. 

Following the 2019 general election, Cummings and Hancock were back in each other’s worlds on a full time basis when Boris Johnson re-appointed Hancock as health secretary, and Cummings was installed as the most senior adviser in Downing Street.

It was known within Westminster that Cummings did not rate Hancock, but in the evidence session on Wednesday their relationship appeared even more dysfunctional than political observers had realised. 

Cummings saved his most scathing testimony for Hancock, who he described as wildly incompetent and accused him of lying to the Prime Minister on testing taking place for those discharged from hospitals into care homes. Hancock denies he was dishonest.  

The ex-government staffer said Hancock’s messages to Cummings were on occasions ignored, or he’d be late in getting a response from him, setting out a breakdown in fluid communications. 

There were also several destabilising briefings against the health secretary that hit the papers, some of which were “massively personal”, including that he was being too ambitious on testing.

The former government staffer said: “Cummings literally said [in his evidence] when the health secretary was trying to ramp up testing, that he told officials ‘don’t do what Matt wants you to do’. 

“It’s one thing if people aren’t engaging but another thing if you see people are sabotaging what you’re trying to do.

“He just treated Hancock with contempt.

“The biggest irony in this whole thing is Hancock and Cummings on policy grounds are in a similar place in the pandemic, especially on a second lockdown. 

“When we were coming out of things they wanted to come out quite slowly. On a lot of the big arguments over the course of the pandemic they were in a similar place, which is why it’s so strange he would go for him in the way he did.”  

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