Hancock turns out to be more Pooh than Tigger

There are times when it’s almost possible to feel sorry for Theresa May. If it wasn’t bad enough losing her overall majority at the last general election, the remaining Tory gene pool was so limited that she was committed to “a government of all the talentless”.

To make matters worse, large numbers of cabinet ministers were forced to resign – either because they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, their incompetence became inescapable or they discovered principles they didn’t know they didn’t have – and the prime minister was forced to really scrape the barrel. So imagine the horror she must have felt when she realised the best person to fill the vacancy for health secretary was Matt Hancock.

Hancock is more boy than man. A natural Tigger who has overdosed on his own ambition and enthusiasm and is completely blind to his own very obvious shortcomings. The sort of person you wouldn’t trust to be in charge of a Lego City Hospital building set, let alone a GP’s surgery. Putting Hancock in control of the NHS was May’s way of terrifying the country into not getting ill.

Just over a month ago, Tigger was called before the health and social care committee to explain what contingency measures for the NHS the government had in place in the event of a no-deal Brexit. His answers had not been entirely reassuring, so now he was back to give the committee an update.

He didn’t get off to the best of starts. All this talk of contingency plans was just contingency talk, he said. The prime minister had come back with an absolutely brilliant withdrawal agreement and future trade declaration and so all danger of a no-deal Brexit had been averted. He seemed genuinely surprised to be informed by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw that at least 90 Tory MPs had promised to vote down her deal and that the government might have to come up with another solution.

Conservative Andrew Selous brokered an uneasy truce and tried again. Suppose – just suppose – that a no-deal was a possibility. What might happen then? “If everybody does everything they are meant to do,” Tigger said, bouncing up and down on his chair, “then everything is going to be just fine.” He looked around, as if expecting applause.

Hard to imagine, but it was downhill from there on. There would be a good supply of medicines providing people did not create a shortage by trying to stockpile them. And yes, there would be plenty of cooling units because, even though they did not yet exist, as he had spent the weekend down at Curry’s getting some great Black Friday deals on fridge freezers. And if the ports were closed, we could always organise an airlift.

Nor was there any need to worry about running out of blood products because we were only going to be about 7% short. And everyone could manage with a little less blood. And if the worst came to the worst, we could reuse all the blood of those extra people who died as a result of a no-deal Brexit. Not that anyone would be dying as a result of a no-deal Brexit so long as everyone did the things they were meant to do. Which was not die.

“OK,” said Bradshaw, pausing for breath. What contingency plans had his department made for May’s deal being dead on arrival and parliament voting down a no-deal. “We have made contingency plans for all eventualities,” Tigger insisted. So what were the contingencies for a Norway-style Brexit? “I don’t make contingencies for hypotheticals.”

At this stage it began to dawn on the committee that they weren’t actually dealing with Tigger after all. They were dealing with Pooh. A bear of very little brain. Someone who was too dim to realise he was contradicting himself every other sentence. Someone who did not even realise the very meaning of contingency was hypothetical.

The committee chair, Sarah Wollaston, began talking slowly and deliberately to Pooh as if he were a patient struggling to come to terms with a terminal diagnosis. Were there any circumstances under which there might be a Brexit dividend for the NHS? What if sterling plummeted? What about the extra costs of recruiting from outside the EU? By now Pooh was reduced to anxiously chewing his thumb, which was rapidly being whittled down to a stump.

“Crikey,” said Pooh. He had never really thought about that. But people shouldn’t get worked up about forecasts as all forecasts were invariably wrong. Including the ones that were right. Besides didn’t everyone know he was putting an extra £30bn into the NHS?

There was a collective groan. The health secretary had not even realised the extra money had been promised regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. All hope had died. If the NHS did survive, it would be by accident rather than design.


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