George Osborne, who appears in some of the leaked WhatsApp messages from Matt Hancock, has defended the former health secretary as one of the “sensible” ministers during the pandemic.
The former Conservative chancellor crops up in the leaked messages offering advice and support to Mr Hancock amid the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking on Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show, Mr Osborne said that while he could not defend Mr Hancock’s decision to hand his messages over to journalist Isabel Oakeshott, he was a “rational” voice in Government.
In one of the published exchanges, Mr Osborne – at the time editor of the London Evening Standard – was quizzed by Mr Hancock about comments he had made during a radio interview about testing and the role of No 10.
Mr Osborne told the health secretary at the time: “Trying to spread the responsibility from you to Number 10 – I’ve said it before.”
Mr Hancock replied: “Ok but mass testing is going v well – I fear this looks like you asked for me to be overruled…”
The ex-chancellor replied: “No-one thinks testing is going well, Matt.”
On another occasion, as he battled to meet his own target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day, the leaked exchanges shows Mr Hancock texted his former boss to “call in a favour”.
Mr Hancock said he has thousands of spare testing slots which is “obvs good news about spread of virus” but “hard for my target” as he asked for front-page coverage.
Mr Osborne responded: “Yes – of course – all you need to do tomorrow is give some exclusive words to the Standard and I’ll tell the team to splash it.”
The then-health secretary later added: “I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!”
The former Tory MP laughed off that particular incident, telling the programme: “It’s not unheard of for newspaper editors to talk to politicians about setting up stories.
“You might notice he was quite disappointed because he didn’t get the front page story. Boris Johnson’s baby knocked him off the front page. And that is the hazard of being a politician: that you don’t always get the press you want.”
Defending Mr Hancock, he said: “I actually think that Matt – this is not a fashionable view at the moment – but Matt was one of the sensible people in the room in a supreme crisis for the British state and indeed lots of other countries around the world.
“And when you look at the conflicting scientific advice, having to work under Boris Johnson’s premiership, Matt was often the person saying sensible, rational things about the policies that needed to be put in place.
“And although the British, they made a poor start in the pandemic, the rollout eventually of mass testing, and particularly the early adoption of vaccination, both of which came under Matt’s aegis, were very successful.”
Mr Osborne, who served in David Cameron’s government, also suggested that these kinds of messages show a “human” side of politics.
The messages were shared with the Telegraph by Ms Oakeshott, who co-authored Mr Hancock’s memoir the Pandemic Diaries, which covered his time as health secretary.
Mr Hancock has condemned the leak as a “massive betrayal” designed to support an “anti-lockdown agenda”.
“I will defend Matt Hancock’s decisions in the pandemic. I’m not going to defend the decision to give it all to Isabel Oakeshott,” Mr Osborne said.
“I don’t think he would defend that decision today. Before we have a great shock-horror reaction – if WhatsApp had existed during the Second World War, in the 19th century, at any point in British history, you would have seen something quite similar from the cast of characters running the country at that particular time.
“Not that it will feel like this at the moment to Matt, but it will kind of give some texture to all of the rather dry cabinet papers which will be released as part of the inquiry, because politics is about human beings working together and often disagreeing with each other.”