It seems like only yesterday that we were all enjoying the memes and videos parodying the decline and fall of Matt Hancock. The incredible brevity of his time in exile seems to strain the laws of PR physics, and suggests that the fallen minister still enjoys support at the highest levels of government.
A hasty press call, a mea culpa in front of a bush: his resignation speech was haphazardly choreographed. The time-compressed media age seems to have eaten away our powers of recall. Public figures are sacrificed daily to the gods of Twitter. News items that, at their peak, command the collective consciousness quickly disappear (Remember wallpaper-gate? I don’t).
The idea of penance – time spent away from ordinary life in repentance for one’s sins – exists in all major religions. The Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba said: “When penance is carefully practised, it inevitably results in the revocation of undesirable modes of thought and conduct, and makes one amenable to a life of service.” Different faiths prescribe differing levels of self-sacrifice according to the seriousness of the sin. Hancock, for his part, has spent a mere six months as a backbencher, and is reported to have also stayed in an £87-per-night hotel in Montreux. Is this enough time to atone for the grope that shook the cabinet?
The great expenses scandal of 2009 for ever eroded the idea of politicians as highly credible public servants, replacing it with the image of Sir Peter Viggers’ duck house. We are far from the days of the John Profumo affair, when scandal could truly bring down a politician. Hancock would never be content tending a market garden in Norfolk. The world has changed a great deal.
Paradoxically, though online platforms are where he received the most ridicule, it is the range of tools that social media makes available that will enable Hancock to ascertain his best route forward. Having conviction, staying fast and loose with messaging, and saturating the media with his rehabilitated smile will – in my honest opinion – be enough to bring him back into the fold of mainstream politics. Hancock’s affair may soon be a dimly remembered peccadillo in the Tory annals.
Gone are the days when a high-profile public figure outed by a red top could buy time in the Priory. Sentiment analysis can help decide between a social media post of toad-licking and a beautiful desert sunset, to see which resonates with the public and best says “I’ve rebooted my life via an out-of-body hallucinogenic experience”. Carefully measured clicks will decide Hancock’s fate. But who is behind this resurrection? Given the current cabinet’s churn, it would not be surprising if Boris Johnson were trying to expedite the rehabilitation of one of his loyal generals. Even with the prime minister as backer, full recovery will require Hancock to believe unflinchingly in his own fitness and purpose. The swiftness and intensity of Hancock’s comeback demonstrates he has the self-belief necessary.
Today’s “dispersed” media will give Hancock’s camp one great benefit: it will allow him to stress-test a number of options. Part of this exercise will be gauging the strength of the hostility against him; the response will shape his strategy. Already you see different tones being trialled, the triumphant, the grovelling (apologetic tones on the BBC and Times Radio) and the scrappily indignant (tense and defensive on Peston on 1 December). The right cocktail – in combination with a charity campaign, such as that he is running on dyslexia awareness – will suffice to ensure no path is barred to him. He could even become prime minister.
For the plucky media strategist, success has the potential to become the story itself; if there is one thing comms folk love, it’s a challenge of Hancockian proportions. Yet, they won’t necessarily do it for free. Whoever is supporting the return of Hancock will anticipate future rewards. Success depends on whether Hancock can still play ball. For all the PR advice one can buy (or source from party ranks), the success or failure of his rehabilitation will ultimately depend on whether he can regain his footing and project effectiveness as a politician.
In all faiths, penance is meant to result in a personality reset, returning the individual from a life of arrogance and sin to one characterised by humility. Public servants stumble. Whether they recover or not is more than just a matter of convincing others they have changed – it is about taking what you learned in the desert to heart.