No apologies, as Matt Hancock proves useful to the prime minister | Health policy

Even those who worked closely with Dominic Cummings in Whitehall during the months when he repeatedly clashed with Matt Hancock privately said they believed there was “no smoking gun” the ex-aide could produce to condemn the health secretary.

There were some dramatic predictions in SW1 that Cummings would produce his texts, emails or handwritten notes in the moment’s before the health secretary sat down – in order to play the moment of maximum vulnerability. Those predictions always sounded more like they were made in breathless hope rather than expectation.

At the hearing of the science and health committees on Thursday, Hancock endeavoured to present himself to MPs as the collegial and transparent alternative to Cummings, whom the public had only ever really seen before in the Downing Street rose garden last summer, making claims about trips during lockdown to test his eyesight.

Yet it was notable how Cummings started his own evidence with numerous apologies and appeared genuinely contrite about what he saw as a number of grievous errors – from too-late lockdowns to care home discharges and the calamitous early operations of test and trace.

Hancock did not. Instead, he came with the conviction that he had acquitted himself to the best of his abilities, and presented the case for the defence which is well-worn: that testing on discharge might have thrown up false negatives, that the UK needed time to build up testing capacity, that the scientific advice did not call for border closures. All that defence is likely to be subject to much more scrutiny in the inquiry.

The committee will now go away to prepare its final report, though Clark told Hancock three of the inquiry’s preliminary conclusions: that a lockdown came too late, that testing capacity was not enough and that errors were made in discharges to care homes.

For all his defences, Hancock seemed to agree, at least with the first two. For now, Hancock looks the safest in his job that he has ever been. The relationship between Hancock and Johnson is said to have become far more warm and trusting over the past year and even reshuffling him now would look like a defeat.

One of Cummings’s key criticisms of the prime minister is that he is obsessed with the media. And while that is by all other accounts true, Johnson has also been prepared to expend significant political capital by keeping ministers and officials in roles when the press calls for heads to roll, including Priti Patel, Robert Jenrick and Cummings himself.

He is also well aware that keeping long-serving ministers in place can act as a lightning rod for his own failings, something which Cummings specifically said applied to Hancock.

Hancock was useful to the prime minister during this session, sidestepping questions on the prime minister’s own personal interventions in the decisions around the autumn lockdown now known to have potentially cost thousands of lives.

Curiously, it was a subject on which he was barely pressed. Only the SNP’s Carol Monaghan used her questions to cross-examine him about the delays to bringing in new restrictions.

Yet it is the period when, allies of Cummings believe, any future inquiry is likely to come down hardest on the prime minister’s conduct.

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