Matt Hancock: “I know what it entails to be PM. I’m ready”
Aged just 40, Matt Hancock could soon become the youngest prime minister since William Pitt the Younger. But the Health Secretary believes he has the experience and energy to deliver Brexit – and then help his party “embrace modern Britain”. He talks to Sebastian Whale
At 40 years old, Matt Hancock would be the youngest prime minister since William Pitt the Younger to enter No 10. Not that he is overawed by the prospect. “If you’re ready then you’re old enough,” he says self-assuredly.
Fortuitously, Pitt is one of Hancock’s three political heroes. “He changed Britain and took us from the lows of having lost the American colonies to the heights of the defeat of Napoleon and set Britain fair for the 19th Century,” he explains.
Sir Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli make up the rest, the former for “obvious reasons”, and the latter because he united Britain through a period of profound change. “He brought the country together during the disruptions of the first industrial revolution which are akin to the disruptions we now see in the fourth industrial revolution,” he says.
With a wink and a nod to the present day, he adds: “He embraced that change and brought the country with him.”
Despite being the youngest candidate in the race to succeed Theresa May, Hancock is not short of experience. The Oxford PPE graduate and Bank of England alumnus worked closely with George Osborne, serving as his chief of staff, before becoming MP for West Suffolk in 2010. He quickly rose up the ministerial food chain.
One of the few survivors of the purge of the Cameroons that followed, Hancock went on to become Secretary of State at DCMS and now oversees the Department of Health and Social Care, where I meet him on a muggy day in Westminster.
“Having held six different ministerial portfolios, having sat there around the Cabinet table in four of those portfolios, most recently running the fifth largest organisation upon earth, and having seen two prime ministers close up, I’ve seen what’s required.”
He adds: “The Conservatives have got to embrace the future, embrace modern Britain, be optimistic, outward-looking and positive. That’s me to my core.”
Hancock’s transformation from karaoke-singing digital native to fully-fledged Cabinet minister has been fascinating to observe. The journey took place remarkably swiftly, and in no small part due to his political nous and abilities.
Beneath the youthful face and on-brand navy suits lies a deeply ambitious politician. Colleagues have long-noted Hancock’s enthusiasm, but has he always wanted to be PM? “I’ve always wanted to serve. I have quite an old-fashioned public service view of politics, and I’ve always focused very much on the job that I’m doing. It’s only quite recently that I’ve decided that I should put my name forward this time,” he replies.
“People say that I’m the youngest candidate in the race, I think that’s a good thing. The whole political system… needs to be lifted and our eyes meet the horizon, rather than being stuck in this malaise.”
Given he’s witnessed the pressures bestowed upon a prime minister, why on earth would he want to take on the role? “Because we desperately need that forward looking optimism. That’s the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s driven me through lots of different ministerial roles and the nation needs energy and optimism and to get out of this rut that we’re stuck in,” he replies.
“The job is a difficult one, and it’s hard… I know what it entails. I’m ready.”
Is he tapping up his old boss, Osborne, for advice about his campaign? “I talk to lots of people, but this campaign I’m very much running myself,” he answers.
Hancock is certainly not plagued by self-doubt – a decent attribute to have when running to be prime minister. He went into politics while his two siblings, like their parents, started their own business (his mother and stepdad run a tech software firm called Border Business Systems, which devised software that allows you to type your postcode and bring up your address). His upbringing instilled a well-established interest in tech (he launched his own self-named app last year) and a keen passion for entrepreneurialism. “I stand unambiguously on a pro-business platform, and it’s something that we Conservatives haven’t talked enough about in the last few years,” he says.
While perhaps no longer seen as Osborne’s protégé, one thing Hancock won’t be able to shake off is the fact that he voted Remain at the EU referendum. Many Leave-supporting MPs have said they wish for the next leader to be a Brexiteer, and the party faithful are expected to follow suit.
Hancock says that logic is “the wrong way up”, as the Tories need to win over Liberal Democrat voters – not just those who supported the Brexit party at the European elections.
“It’s not enough only to win back one group. To succeed, we need to appeal broadly to right-minded people who want to see the country prosper in a free enterprise, free society. The best person to do that is someone who can deliver Brexit and then turn the page and move forward,” Hancock interjects.
He adds: “If we double down only on the Brexit side, then it’s hard to see how we form a majority in the future.”
Hancock says the Tories can win the next election resoundingly if the party delivers Brexit and comes through for people in their normal working lives. “We can absolutely and emphatically win that by concentrating on the bread and butter issues that matter to people.”
But does Hancock believe in Brexit? “Yes,” he says, fixing my eyes. “I believe that Britain is going to be strong and prosperous in the future, and we need to deliver Brexit so that we can maximise the benefits. I believe in Brexit because I believe in democracy, and I believe in following the result of public votes, whether they’re referenda or elections. We’re going to make it happen.”
He adds: “The future is being written in the funky offices of San Francisco and in the upcoming giants of the east. We need to part of that world.”
But how would Hancock deliver Brexit? His plans include pursuing a free trade agreement with the EU and establishing an Irish Border Council to review maintaining a soft border post-Brexit. He would also unilaterally guarantee EU citizens’ rights and pursue a time limit to the backstop (a proposal the Irish government are unlikely to stomach, but he insists could be on the table).
Given the complexion of parliament and the occupant of the Speaker’s chair, Hancock says no deal is not an active policy choice. He is unequivocal that his strategy can deliver Brexit by 31 October. “I’m the only candidate who’s put forward a credible plan to do so.”
With a majority of Scots opposed to leaving the European Union, Nicola Sturgeon has mooted holding a second independence referendum towards the end of next year. Hancock is categoric that if he was prime minister, his government would not sanction another vote. “We’ve settled the issue, and we don’t need, and we won’t have a second referendum.”
“God, this is going well isn’t it,” Hancock remarks when I say he’s looking fit and trim.
My compliment isn’t completely out of the blue. The Health Secretary has advocated a healthy lifestyle since his time in DCMS, and a recent picture on the campaign trail showed he’d been hitting the gym. But why haven’t we seen any pictures of him out running in ill-fitting clothing? “Have you sorted that yet?” he jokingly asks his aide.
The point is a serious one – Hancock says keeping active can help with one’s mental health. “Once you start thinking about your mental and physical fitness as an asset, you have to keep investing in the asset, otherwise it degrades. That’s true of everybody, but the greater the pressure on the job, the more important that is.”
The New Zealand government recently produced a budget that focused on wellbeing rather than economic growth. What did Hancock make of this? “I think it’s a really interesting approach, and I’ve thought quite a lot about it. Ultimately, for me, the purpose of politics is to help people to achieve their potential. I believe very strongly that everybody has a contribution to make to society and the role of government is to help them to do that to the best they can,” he says.
Hancock says supporting people’s mental health would be front and centre across of his government’s policies, from supporting veterans in the MoD to promoting physical activity in DCMS. Targeting people’s wellbeing could help solve the UK’s productivity woes, he argues. “I have absolutely no doubt about that. I’m working with Amber Rudd on improving mental health in work, and there’s work for all businesses to do and for government to support in to ensure that people get that help.”
Rather than watch Love Island (Hancock has stern words for the show’s producers regarding their duty of care to contestants), he unwinds by spending time with his three children. “It helps you get away from it all and it helps ground you in reality because it doesn’t matter whether I’m Secretary of State for Health and have been for a drink with the Queen or anything else. Once I get home, I’m just dad,” he says.
Though hopes of moving beyond Brexit remain a pipedream, Hancock’s pitch for the leadership focusses on higher pay for workers. He wants to see an increase in the national living wage and ensure lower taxes “when we can afford them”. His main pillar is on ensuring higher paid work, which he argues will come from reforming the education system to prepare people for the jobs “coming down the track”.
“Over the next decade, we’re going to see a growth in the global middle class like we’ve never seen before. That means we’ll have less of things getting cheaper, but we’ll have more opportunities for high paid jobs, because Britain is brilliant at delivering the things that the growing global middle class want,” he says.
“So, there’s a massive opportunity and we need to get onto that agenda. That’s how you then fund good public services too. I want to see properly funded public services like we’ve seen in health. I’d like to see the same approach in education… the long-term plan with the long-term budget has worked well in health, and I want to see that in education as well.”
Would austerity come to an end under his premiership? “I want to see debts continuing to fall as a country, but I want to use the fiscal firepower that we have to win the argument that the free-enterprise system is the best way to see increased living standards and well-funded public services.” The foreign aid budget would be protected, as would the 2% target on defence spending, which Hancock says he sees “as a floor”.
Soon after our interview, US President Donald Trump says he would expect the NHS to be on the table during future trade talks between the United States and the UK (he later rowed back on this). Hancock says: “The NHS isn’t for sale and I’m against the privatisation of the NHS. It will always be free at the point of use according to need, not ability to pay. That principle isn’t on the table.”
The primary challenge for the next prime minister will be to unite an increasingly divided country. Would a gesture such as a new Royal Yacht Britannia be something that could bring people back together? “I think we do need symbols of our unity as a country, yes,” Hancock replies. “I’m open to all ideas about how we might do that.”
Drawing inspiration from his political heroes, Hancock is adamant that he is the man to bring the country back together. “Yes, because I represent the future and because by delivering Brexit in a way that can help bring people back together on a deal, we can then turn the page and look forward.”