At a party a few years ago, George Osborne came up to me, hand outstretched. He was warm and friendly, greeting me like an old friend. He was trendily dressed and sporting a snazzy new haircut.
This was a different Osborne from the one I’d been used to. He’d always seemed wary, slightly prickly, not sure how to take me, a journalist who could not be relied upon to toe his line, who might ask awkward questions. He always wore dark, sombre suits that made him seem older than his years, with dull ties.
Looking back, that must have been when Thea Rogers - now engaged to Osborne and expecting their child, after he separated from Frances, his wife of 21 years - gave him a makeover and, with it, developed a relationship. Rogers was his special adviser at the Treasury, when Osborne was Chancellor, then became his chief of staff. She is credited with “metrosexualising” him, putting him on the 5:2 diet and modernising his wardrobe.
If that sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it is. Gina Coladangelo, the new partner of Matt Hancock and until last Friday one of his aides, got him to wear white shirts (Rogers did the same with Osborne), choose smarter suits and shoes, shorten his hair and “emote” when he spoke. Suddenly we were treated to the spectacle of the Health Secretary blubbing on our screens and dropping the word “love” into his chat.
Now we’re being informed by “friends” that after they were caught in a passionate embrace on CCTV in his office; and Hancock has quit his job; and Coladangelo has left hers; and they’ve both dumped their spouses and departed their family homes (they each have three children) – theirs is a perfect “love match”.
It reminds me of a friend of mine, a business high flyer who was married to his girlfriend from university, with whom he had two children. We were round at their house for lunch one weekend. He announced that he wanted to go shopping. He was going to go on his own, until his wife suggested I accompany him and off we trotted to the shops. It transpired that the only store he wanted to visit was the one selling trendy menswear. He proceeded to buy two suits and a jacket, work shirts, belts, underwear, the lot, and racked up a huge bill, just like that, seemingly on the spur of the moment in the middle of the afternoon. I sat there for ages, on a chair, like a spare part.
Later, it turned out he was having an affair with a woman at work, and he duly left his wife and children, and went off with her.
What was happening with him, which is what occurred presumably with Hancock and Osborne, is that his wife spent years at home, minding the house and children, and his career was taking off. They were still together but increasingly on divergent paths. These men wouldn’t actively date other women but when someone came along who was a colleague, whom they were seeing daily in an easy, close setting, that separation was exacerbated and their marriages were over.
The Daily Mail writer Sarah Vine, who is married to Michael Gove, put it well. Under the headline, “The problem with your wife who’s been with you for ever is that she knows you’re not the Master of the Universe you purport to be”, Vine described “the eternal lot of the political [it could apply to business, sport, arts, anything] spouse: keeping the home fires burning so the ‘Big I Am’ can do more important stuff – in this [Hancock’s] case, saving the world from Covid-19.”
Wrote Vine: “The old ‘behind every great man there’s a woman drowning in dirty laundry’ is a cliche. But it’s true.”
She continued: “It is very hard to do these high-level, high-pressure, high-stakes jobs unless you have someone prepared to take up the reins in every other department of your life. But the problem is that inevitably sets you on different tracks. You become so entrenched in your respective roles that you begin to drift apart.”
It’s more than that, however. Those at the top of politics or business, whatever it might be, are surrounded by sycophants, telling them constantly how wonderful they are. Often, after a while, they start to believe in their own entitlement and superiority. How else to explain, as well as Hancock’s disregard for the social distancing rules – the very regulations he required everyone else to obey – his cavalier attitude towards due process? Coladangelo was a close friend from university; he gave her a job at taxpayers’ expense in his department. Other pals, including Coladangelo’s brother, Robert, ran companies that were in receipt of lucrative PPE contracts. It’s as though the “boring stuff”, the checking and vetting, is an inconvenience, to be dispensed with – along, sadly, with the long-suffering spouse and mother of the children.
There is, though, a twist to this. Frequently, it is the person hired to help with the media, to assist with image, who ends up doing great harm to that hitherto wholesome ideal of the happy family man. That’s what occurred with Hancock. Coladangelo worked in public relations, at the agency Luther Pendragon and for her multi-millionaire husband’s business, retailer Oliver Bonas (he is Oliver Tress, the Oliver from the brand’s name).
She was supposed to know about messaging – it was meant to be her specialist subject. But in aiding Hancock she ended up partnering him in wrecking the messages he and the government were so keen to cultivate.
That doesn’t matter, though, as long as Boris Johnson remains in charge. He is likely to ensure that Hancock returns. Hancock was loyal, a hard worker, a ready foil for the Prime Minister. In Johnson’s eyes he will merit a second chance. He’s also all too conversant with what his health secretary went through. Johnson is three times married, the second for 27 years, during which he had four children with his wife, Marina, but also engaged in affairs, at least one of which resulted in another child.
Hancock will be back, albeit with a new partner – providing they stay together – sharp clothes and a willingness to cry.