Before I turn to the latest, rather large batch of Tory MPs’ letters sent to me in response to my twitter campaign to find out how they are dealing with their constituents’ complaints about Dominic Cummings, I want to dwell in detail on one particular exchange.
You may recall that yesterday, in this 13000-word analysis of some of these letters, I cited part of the stock letter being sent by Health Secretary Matt Hancock to his voters in West Suffolk. I made the point that Mr Hancock, one of the most regular Number 10 briefing performers (and boy does he like to perform) indulges excessively in the formulaic empathy of looking earnest and saying ‘our thoughts and prayers are with’ … etc. He is also fairly fond of looking direct into the camera and saying ‘you will never be forgotten’ to the dead.
As I said yesterday, I would love it if one day he was asked to name nurses and doctors who have died on the frontline, and see how far he gets.
Empathy is not just saying things. It is doing things. What was it I said in the piece I wrote for the Evening Standard, edited by Hancock’s close friend George Osborne, on April 3, almost two months ago, when the former Chancellor asked me to write a ‘ten point crisis guide’?
9. “Show real empathy. This is more than saying we value nurses or that “thoughts and prayers” are with families of the dead. It must not feel formulaic and is about making sure they have what they need. After 9/11, and the 2005 London bombings, for example, Tessa Jowell worked full-time liaising to make sure victims’ families were properly looked after.”
Sadly, Tessa is now dead herself, but my God what could the country do with someone in government with her empathy, that ability not just to be nice to people who were suffering, but then go away and help sort the things they needed.
I gave another example when I was on the Jeremy Vine show last week. I was on after Mr Hancock, and during my bit, a nurse called in to say she had been stuck at home self-isolating for weeks, trying to get tested for the virus, and get the results so she could hopefully get back to work. She was scathing.
I said that if that had happened during the Blair years, not just I but people all over Whitehall would have got onto the Health Department, and asked ‘there was a nurse on Channel 5 with a real problem just now, somebody sort it out.’ I asked Channel 5 to send the clip to Mr Hancock.
Now, please meet Mr Seamus McNally. He lives in Newmarket. Mr Hancock is his MP.
After seeing Boris Johnson’s defence of Dominic Cummings, after Mr Johnson debased the office of the Prime Minister by allowing Dominic Cummings to do a fairy-tale reading in the garden, Mr McNally wrote to Mr Hancock as follows.
As a constituent of yours, I find myself compelled to write to you to express my utter disgust at what I have just witnessed in today’s briefing.
The Prime Minister’s defense of the Cummings’ quite unbelievable traversing of the country in a vehicle that must have been full of the virus is utterly astonishing.
Not only did they ignore YOUR “this is not advice, this is an instruction”, they arrogantly risked the lives of those that they came in to contact with on the journey. Please do not insult me by suggesting that a 264 mile journey with a four year old in the car was made in one go, they clearly had to have stopped.
My father-in-law died during this lockdown, having been alone in hospital, his children and grand-children, my children, unable to so much as visit him to say goodbye – he died, alone. Can you begin to imagine how heart breaking that is to contemplate and to have to live with for the rest of your life for his children and grand-children? I know I can’t.
The “instincts” of his children were to visit him. They did not, as they complied with YOUR “instructions.” The Prime Minister’s assertion that Cummings acted correctly on his “instincts” is deeply, deeply insulting. Should my children have acted on their “instincts” to say one final goodbye to their grandfather before he died? Should many more of us than the 10 that have been allowed turn up to his funeral on Thursday to send him off?
This country can see straight through this brazen pack of lies to protect the career of an unelected advisor. It is sickening to see and I implore you to change your view on this issue, to represent the views of your constituents and call for the departure of this odious individual.
I look forward to your response.
I suggest you go back and read the last three paragraphs again, before I post Mr Hancock’s reply, and then imagine how Mr McNally and his grieving family felt when they received it. It will be familiar to those of you who read my blog yesterday. It is the same letter, cut and paste, word for word, except for the top line, the first name ‘personal touch.’
Thank you for writing to me about Dominic Cummings. I understand that this is a sensitive issue, and I want to assure you that I continue to put all of my efforts as Health Secretary, and as your MP, into stopping the devastating effects of coronavirus so that we can get life back to normal as soon as possible.
Mr. Cummings gave a full and detailed statement on Monday 25th May in which he outlined the reasons that led to his journey to Durham. Journalists were immediately given the opportunity to question him, and I am satisfied with Mr. Cummings’ account. While I believe Mr. Cummings was correct to find childcare for his toddler when both he and his wife were getting ill, I completely understand that others do not share this view.
I am so proud at how the country has come together during this difficult time and how communities across West Suffolk have rallied in support of the social distancing and lockdown rules, and in particular of our wonderful carers. We have done so much to stop the spread of coronavirus, and it is vital we now come together in the next phase, to get our country back on her feet.
Thank you again for taking the time to write to me.
‘Dear Seamus …. Regards, Matt’, all designed to give an impression of ‘all in this together’ familiarity, when the one thing the Johnson/Cummings scandal has shown is that we are most definitely not all in this together. Unsurprisingly, Mr McNally was unimpressed.
‘Mr Hancock,’ he replied.
‘Thanks for the reply but did you actually read my mail? In it I discussed the death, alone and in hospital, of my father in law and the fact that my children couldn’t even visit to say goodbye to him before he died. You didn’t even offer your condolences.
That’s not normal.
You’re my MP. You work for us. What happened to representative democracy?
I know that Mr Hancock is incredibly busy, ramping up all sorts of things that should have been sorted weeks ago, and playing his part in using up vast political time, energy and capital to let his amoral boss keep his favourite adviser. And yes, he will be getting many, many letters and emails, and cannot be expected to read them all, or see all the replies.
But he should have systems, so that he and his staff know the kind of letter that requires a stock response, and what requires a personal response. It is no good, as people in high places are wont to do, blaming interns and volunteers and junior officials when something like this happens. This went out in Hancock’s name. It is his responsibility. And it reflects further on something that has become all too apparent in this crisis – from Johnson down, these people are not very good at their jobs.
Also, the terrifying thing, having watched every minute of all but two of the Number 10 briefings in recent weeks is that Mr Hancock is better than most of the others.
A letter like Mr McNally’s, no matter how busy Mr Hancock may be, should have had at the least a handwritten letter of condolence, but more likely a phone call, not just to address the Johnson/Cummings point, but to see what help he could give the family at this time. That is what MPs are for – to help and represent their constituents.
I would have posted this yesterday, as part of the long analysis I did, but I wanted to be sure Mr McNally and his family were content for such personal correspondence to be put in the public domain.
‘Yes, please feel free to publish any of the correspondence as you see fit and again, thank you for pursuing this fight,’ he said, adding that he was genuinely worried at the turn the country was taking under this government. ‘There are many, many, many voiceless people out here who appreciate greatly what you are doing.’
Mr Hancock and I follow each other on twitter so, in case his office doesn’t see this post, I will send it to him by direct message.
And may I offer a little advice – dig out Mr McNally’s letter, have a read, get in touch, and use that word that these Tories, despite helping more than 60,000 to die, despite ballsing up PPE, testing and so much besides, despite taking the UK to the top of the global death league …. Sorry …
And perhaps call him Mr McNally, not Seamus. He is not your friend. We are not all in this together.
Here is my suggested draft.
‘Dear Mr McNally,
I am genuinely sorry for sending you a stock letter in response to your complaint about Mr Cummings. I have no excuse, other than the fact that I have had many hundreds of such letters, and in my rush to get them answered, I instructed my office to send a standard reply to all. I can see how the impersonal and dismissive nature of the reply will have added to your pain and suffering at this time, and I sincerely apologise for that.
Let me please now offer my condolences to you and your family, even while accepting you may see this as too little, too late. But in addition to accepting my apology, which I hope you do, I would also like to be able to speak to you and assess if there is anything I can do specifically to help you and your family.
As for Mr Cummings, as a member of the Cabinet, I am bound by collective responsibility and, the Prime Minister having been clear he is not dismissing his adviser, and Mr Cummings having been clear he is not resigning, if I publicly contradicted that position, I would have to resign. I think that would be to walk away from my responsibilities as Health Secretary during a national crisis.
In politics, sometimes we have to say things we don’t want to, and sometimes we have to bite our tongue. That is one of these situations. I share your anger at the distraction this has caused, and your concerns about the implications for public health policy. But I must stay focused on my job, not the job of Mr Cummings.
I hope you will contact me to arrange a call or a meeting. Thank you, and my condolences once more to you and your family.