If the stakes weren’t so high, it might be tempting to laugh at Matt Hancock. “Sometimes people say about Matt that he’s too much like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh,” says his former mentor, George Osborne. “Frankly, that’s all about his youth and his energy and his enthusiasm.”

Unsurprisingly, this boyish pep has ebbed away in recent months and his naturally upbeat disposition has, under extreme stress, produced something closer to Alan Partridge.

The fact that Hancock has clawed his way to the cabinet and managed to stay there is an achievement that cannot be ignored, however. I had thought that being asked to write an interesting profile of Hancock was the journalistic equivalent of being sent to buy tartan paint. But his Remainer/Cameroon credentials make his longevity all the more intriguing. Behind the polished banality is a political survivor who should – to some extent – be taken seriously.

Hancock was born in Chester, Cheshire in 1978 where his parents ran a software company. He was sent to the independent King’s School in Chester where “he was never in the running to be a head boy,” according to his former headmaster, Roger Wixon. “There were certainly more outstanding boys in his year than Matthew.”

He was hardly a stranger to academic success, though. After a one-year computing course he went on to read PPE at Oxford and graduated with a first. After Oxford it was a stint at the Bank of England and then a Masters in Economics at Cambridge. The fact that he has dyslexia makes these academic achievements all the more impressive.

So far, so normal for a young Spad (ministerial special adviser) in the making. And that’s how his political career began, when he was appointed in 2005 as an economic adviser to George Osborne, the newly-minted Shadow Chancellor. He later became his chief of staff, or as Osborne wistfully put it, “the Ed Balls to my Gordon Brown.”

Hancock shared an office with Ed Llewelyn (who performed the same role for Cameron) in between their bosses’ rooms.  He was an important cog in the operation, attending Cameron’s morning meeting and the preparation sessions for PMQs.

His work on the economics of the Tory’s election strategy meant that Hancock “played a critical part in our victory in 2010,” according to Osborne. It was at this election that Hancock became an MP himself, installed in the safe seat of West Suffolk.

In his 2012 book, George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor, Janan Ganesh writes: “In many ways, Hancock resembles Osborne… He has a pitiless focus on the political bottom line and a pugnacious approach to his Labour opponents. His Threadneedle erudition vies with a more martial spirit, and does not always win.” One Whitehall mandarin who had dealings with him as Osborne’s chief of staff described him as “devoid of principle, transparently ambitious and pleased with himself beyond measure”.

A group of political journalists, and several of their contacts, even formed a semi-serious dining club with the sole and dedicated aim of doing everything to ensure that Hancock never became Prime Minister.

In the reshuffle of September 2012, he started to rise, securing his first ministerial posting as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Skills. Under Osborne’s patronage he continued to climb, with stints as Business Minister and Energy Minister. Following the election victory in 2015, he was promoted to the role of Minister to the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, giving him the right to attend cabinet meetings.

Inevitably, some colleagues resented his chumminess with the Chancellor. A joke at a 2014 Tory Party “away day”, recounted at the time in the Daily Mail, paints the picture: “The Prime Minister (Cameron) led riotous laughter when Yorkshire Tory MP Philip Davies mocked Osborne’s chief ally, Business Minister Matthew Hancock, saying: ‘Anyone tempted to lick George Osborne’s backside should be careful because if you go too far you will find the soles of Matt Hancock’s shoes in the way’.”

A more generous gloss would be that he is a smooth operator who knows how to ingratiate himself with higher-ups, and also knows when to pick a fight and when to lie low. He is described by colleagues and acquaintances as a friendly, stand-up “modern-man” who rubs along well with most.

His steep ascent was halted by the 2016 referendum. Theresa May assumed the premiership and his mentor was sacked. As a Remainer and stalwart Cameroon he was firmly in the firing line. But in the great purge that followed, Hancock emerged as one of the few  survivors.

How he managed it remains a bit of a mystery. There’s speculation that the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, an ally of Hancock’s from the Cabinet Office, put in a good word for him. It’s possible that he was deemed too junior to cull. He also decided to back May quite early in the leadership race. In any case, he clung on, but had to make do with a demotion to the post of Minister of State for Digital and Culture.

He certainly has an adventurous, competitive streak. “Matt loved to win games. He gave it his all to try to win,” says his cousin, Rowena. He holds the record for playing the most northerly game of cricket after trekking to the North Pole with a friend in 2005, getting frostbite in the process. “He went to test himself. He’s very determined”, says the businesswoman Gina Coladangelo, a close friend.

In 2012, Hancock rode to victory as an amateur jockey in a charity horse race in Newmarket, shedding two stone to do so. Frankie Dettori gave him some tips: “I was told to tuck in behind who I thought would win, pull out at two furlongs and kick on.” Was Frankie talking about the horse race? We can only guess.

Hancock shows off his Jockeying skills at Newmarket in 2012. Image via Twitter – @MattHancock

One thing that’s certain is that what really makes him tick is tech. His parents developed the technology that returns an address when you type a postcode into a search engine. “His mother in particular was a very strong influence on him,” says Coladangelo. “She was the brains of the business that they started from their kitchen at home. He learnt a lot from growing up with that business.”

Hancock wrote computer code for the company from the age of 15 and worked there briefly after university. During his six-month stint as Culture Secretary he focussed on regulating the internet and developing a strategy for dealing with disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence.

In 2018, while Digital Minister, Hancock became the first UK MP to launch a personalised app, a bespoke data-guzzling social media network for his West Suffolk constituents. With a deadpan flourish, the app was christened “Matt Hancock App”. System alerts would inform users that “Matt Hancock would like to access your photos” or that “Matt Hancock keeps stopping.” The app was as innovative as it was ruthlessly mocked, although you could sense a twinge of jealousy in the jibes from fellow ministers who wouldn’t have minded their own digital personality cult.

Later in 2018, he replaced Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary. Just days after his appointment he called in a group of the country’s leading tech entrepreneurs for a round table asking them for their ideas on how to improve healthcare through digital technology. They were suitably impressed. But some NHS bosses were suspicious of the slick young minister. “He’s very arrogant. It’s all about his own career,” said one.

After Theresa May’s ill-fated administration was brought to an end by the Brexit crisis, Hancock hitched his wagon to Boris Johnson early in the 2019 leadership race. “It’s got to be Boris. He’s a winner, we have to win,” he told fellow guests at The Spectator summer party that year. When Johnson became PM, Hancock kept his job.

Things were going quite well as Health Secretary until they weren’t. As the Covid-19 crisis took hold, Hancock became the face of the pandemic. He was one of the faces chosen to address the nation at the daily coronavirus briefing and on a gruelling, round-the-clock schedule of media appearances the trademark grin was replaced with a thousand-yard stare.

Image via Twitter – @MattHancock

He has, say friends, worked flat out, immersing himself in the detail and reading widely – at one point he realised there was a flaw in the death statistics data by reading a blog written by an academic. Although critical ministerial colleagues suggest that this immersion in Covid-19 data and capture by NHS bosses has skewed his view, making him an advocate of the ultra-cautious approach of suppressing the virus until there is a vaccine. That could mean tough restrictions for years. This makes him, increasingly, a target for furious Tory MPs.

He was mocked for talking of a “moonshot” moment, with plans to conduct millions of Covid tests each day. The British system is struggling with the existing numbers.

Despite his recent trials, however, glimmers of the old Hancock are starting to re-emerge. A fresh hell awaited the Health Secretary last week when he was wheeled onto Sky News to be asked by Kay Burley how long the government’s casual sex ban was going to last and what counted as an “established relationship.” (See Yougov’s poll of answers for proof that it was a tricky question). But Hancock evaded Burley’s questions with gawky charm and as they smirked flirtatiously at each other it started to feel like a first date.

An unlikely romance: Hancock with Kay Burley on her Sky News interview show. Image via Sky News.

So could Tigger bounce back post-crisis? It seems highly unlikely, with so many Tory MPs after him. Hancock may end up first in line as fall-guy whenever there is a reshuffle. In his favour, he knows a lot about how well (or badly) Number 10 handled the crisis and that may protect him.

Few would deny that he has been dealt a fiendishly difficult hand. His career will forever be defined by his time as Health Secretary and his name forever associated with Coronavirus.

But you never know. Matt Hancock has proved he has staying power. He is a fighter. And even though he’s sometimes regarded as a figure of fun, we shouldn’t write him off. Remember what happened to the last politician who made us laugh? That was Boris. We’re not laughing now.