House of Commons bosses are today accused of a cover-up after admitting MPs broke a strict Covid drinking curfew – but failing to say if Matt Hancock was among them.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that an official inquiry has confirmed our revelations last week that MPs drank their way past the nationwide 10pm deadline in a Commons bar.
But in an extraordinary lapse, officials failed to ask if the Health Secretary was involved – despite the claims of a senior Tory MP that he was there.
Mr Hancock is today under mounting pressure to come clean about his actions after the witness insisted: ‘I stand 100 per cent by my story. I know what I saw, and when.’
Yet the Health Secretary has refused 30 times to say whether he returned to the Commons Smoking Room bar after a 9.40pm vote.
House of Commons bosses are today accused of a cover-up after admitting MPs broke a strict Covid drinking curfew – but failing to say if Matt Hancock was among them
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that an official inquiry has confirmed our revelations last week that MPs drank their way past the nationwide 10pm deadline in a Commons bar. But in an extraordinary lapse, officials failed to ask if the Health Secretary was involved – despite the claims of a senior Tory MP that he was there
Last night, former Labour MP John Mann, who is now a non-affiliated peer, said of the limited Commons inquiry: ‘This does smack of a cover-up. We in Parliament have a duty to respect the rules we lay down for everyone in the country. But more than that, we have a duty to be seen to be respecting the rules.’
However, Charles Walker, the senior Tory MP who led the curfew probe, last night claimed it would have been ‘invidious’ to have asked Commons bar staff to name the MPs drinking past 10pm.
The scandal brewed as:
- Tighter rules kicked in for more than ten million people in England as areas moved up a tier in the new alert system;
- Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt faced a fierce backlash after backing the idea of a so-called circuit-breaker lockdown lasting two or three weeks – with scientists divided over whether such a move would be worth doing;
- The UK recorded 16,171 new coronavirus cases yesterday, up six per cent on the previous Saturday, and 150 deaths, bringing the total to 43,579;
- Reports said police will be given access to the details of people who are supposed to be self-isolating while the NHS tracing app suffered more technical problems;
- Experts warned that plans to move elderly hospital patients into special Covid-positive care homes will create ‘hothouses’ of infection;
- Sources said Chancellor Rishi Sunak was fearful that caving into Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s demand for more cash if the city was to be plunged into stricter Tier 3 lockdown could saddle the Treasury with huge bills if other parts of the country make similar demands;
- University union chief Jo Grady was criticised after accusing Ministers of a ‘perverse obsession’ with Christmas amid a campus lockdown row;
- Hospitality industry experts warned of a staggering 750,000 possible job losses by February;
- Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson revealed his eldest brother had died of Covid-19;
- Pubs, restaurants and cafes in Northern Ireland saw their first weekend of a four-week ban on sit-in customers;
- Wales was set to announce two weeks of tighter restrictions.
The Mail on Sunday last week revealed astonishing claims that the Health Secretary had breached his own curfew by drinking in the Smoking Room bar after 10pm.
We reported how Mr Hancock arrived at the MPs-only bar just before a 9.40pm vote on Monday, October 5, ordered a glass of white wine and made a tasteless joke about Public Health England losing nearly 16,000 positive coronavirus tests.
Last night, former Labour MP John Mann (above) said of the limited Commons inquiry: ‘This does smack of a cover-up. We in Parliament have a duty to respect the rules we lay down for everyone in the country. But more than that, we have a duty to be seen to be respecting the rules’
‘The drinks are on me – but Public Health England are in charge of the payment methodology so I will not be paying anything,’ he was heard to say.
In a carefully worded statement issued on his behalf, the Health Secretary made no attempt to deny that he made the joke.
He has also admitted being in the Smoking Room that night but claims ‘no rules have been broken’ and claimed he ‘departed the parliamentary estate to go home’ after taking part in a Commons vote at 9.40pm.
However, his spokesman has declined to answer the simple question: did he return to the bar before he left for home?
Since Mr Hancock’s only formal statement to this newspaper last weekend, we have sent his spokesman 30 further requests for comment including twice daily emails and twice daily WhatsApp messages.
The spokesman replied just three times, to say only: ‘I would refer you back to the previous statement that I provided.’
Mr Walker, chairman of the Commons Administration Committee, confirmed that some MPs broke the rules, saying: ‘It happened and it should not have happened… it does seem there were drinks being consumed after 10pm on that Monday night in the Smoking Room.’
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle (pictured) yesterday banned alcohol sales in all Commons outlets. But earlier in the week, authorities reacted to the curfew breach by installing a new sign in the bar setting out the curfew rules
He stressed that the rules then in place in the Commons – in line with the curfew for all pubs and restaurants – were that bars should be empty of people drinking alcohol by 10pm. But he defended the decision not to identify which MPs have been guilty, saying it would have been ‘invidious’ to ask Common staff to do so.
However, Sir Alistair Graham – former chairman of the Committee on Standards In Public Life – said: ‘I don’t know that should be so. If they are trying to apply rules in a rigorous way, why shouldn’t they ask the staff which MPs they were serving?’
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle yesterday banned alcohol sales in all Commons outlets. But earlier in the week, authorities reacted to the curfew breach by installing a new sign in the bar setting out the curfew rules.
However, one source complained that some MPs might ignore staff ‘because they see themselves as senior to them’.
Mail on Sunday comment
Here is a very simple question, to which the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It runs: ‘Did Health Secretary Matt Hancock return to the House of Commons Smoking Room after going to vote at 9.40pm on Monday, October 5?’
The Mail on Sunday has put this to Mr Hancock almost 30 times in the past week, and has received no such answer.
This is the same Matt Hancock who issues the decrees which have shut or brutally restricted restaurants and pubs up and down the country, wrecking their trade with curfews and rigid, inflexible closures.
On behalf of all those who have built up such businesses with long hours of risk and hard work and who now face going broke, and on behalf of those whose jobs in the hospitality industry are being wiped out, we demand that Mr Hancock replies, and finally reveals whether he obeys his own rules.
13 days on, Tory whistleblower is still adamant he saw Matt Hancock flouting curfew
By BRENDAN CARLIN, political correspondent for the Mail on Sunday
We reported how Mr Hancock arrived at the MPs-only bar just before a 9.40pm vote on Monday, October 5, ordered a glass of white wine (file image) and made a tasteless joke about Public Health England losing nearly 16,000 positive coronavirus tests
In A voice quivering with indignation, the senior Tory MP on the end of the line said he had something rather startling to tell me – and he was emphatically certain of the details. ‘I saw him,’ he exclaimed. ‘I saw the Health Secretary, the man telling the rest of the country how to behave, flouting his own Covid curfew rules.’
A day earlier, said my mole scarcely able to conceive of the scene before him, he had witnessed Matt Hancock drinking in a Commons bar past the 10pm curfew. Indeed, he told me the Health Secretary was still there as late as 10.25pm.
Mr Hancock, the Cabinet Minister most determined to pile ever more restrictions upon the rest of us? The very same, said the source. And what’s more, he was doing so in a week of mounting fury that the 10pm rule was crippling pubs and restaurants, threatening to put many out of business.
There was something else, said the MP. Mr Hancock had first waltzed into the plush, wood-panelled Smoking Room bar for his sneaky tipple with a joke on his lips, a tasteless one at that.
Down the decades, the bar has been known for its conviviality and spirited discourse – a place where political giants held court in armchairs that had once belonged to William Gladstone. One memorable night, Winston Churchill and Nye Bevan hotly debated which was the most decisive period in British history. The Reformation, argued Winston; the Civil War, insisted Nye.
BUT on Monday, October 5, according to my source, Mr Hancock – not necessrily many people’s idea of a political giant – was nursing a glass of Commons own-brand Sauvignon Blanc and behaving ‘like a pantomime dame’, merrily making light of the potentially disastrous loss of 16,000 positive virus tests just hours after sorrowfully telling the Commons how the blunder should never have happened.
‘The drinks are on me – but Public Health England are in charge of the payment methodology so I will not be paying anything,’ Mr Hancock is said to have wisecracked.
The whistle-blowing MP’s phone call to me came at shortly after 6pm the following day – and he hasn’t changed a word of his testimony since.
We first put our questions to Mr Hancock’s special adviser shortly after 10am last Saturday morning in a telephone call followed up with a detailed email. He took five hours to come back with an answer.
It came in the form of a statement, terse, legalistic and very carefully phrased. ‘The proposed timeline of events is false and no rules have been broken,’ it insisted. ‘The Secretary of State was in the Smoking Room prior to the vote that evening. The Secretary of State left the Smoking Room to vote. The vote took place at 9.42pm. The Secretary of State then departed the Parliamentary estate to go home.’
But the statement contained one obvious gaping hole – the wriggle room so beloved of politicians. Did Mr Hancock return to the bar before he went home? And what about the tasteless joke, which the statement ignored completely?
Mr Hancock himself was back at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday afternoon, presenting an ideal opportunity for Opposition MPs to challenge him over the curfew row. None did
Last Saturday, we immediately went back to Hancock’s special adviser seeking clarification on these matters, but we received no response.
Our deadline came and went but we were still able to run a hard-hitting front-page story which led to an inquiry into the incident, with questions being asked at the highest level in the Commons.
The Mail on Sunday has now contacted Mr Hancock’s office 30 times seeking straight answers – to no avail. Only three times did Mr Hancock’s spokesman reply, each time simply referring us back to the original statement.
No 10, meanwhile, has remained notably silent. One observer likened Downing Street’s reaction to the affair last weekend to that of a rubbernecking driver crawling past a car crash, commenting ‘oh, that looks nasty’ – but failing to intervene. Instead, it left Hancock’s advisers to try to bluff their way through it alone.
On several occasions over the past week, I have gone back to the senior MP. Could he be mistaken? Absolutely not. He was 100 per cent certain of his facts – and livid at what he saw as Hancock’s dissembling.
Last Tuesday – 48 hours after our original story – there was an intriguing development. A sign suddenly appeared in the Smoking Room declaring: ‘Last orders at 9.45pm. Venue to be vacated by 10pm.’
Was this an oblique comment on the Hancock affair? In other words, did he get a drink in before the 10pm curfew and carry on quaffing beyond it?
In recent weeks, Hancock has faced intense pressure over the perceived serial incompetence of his department, not just from Labour but from Tory MPs convinced he is an economy-destroying ‘lockdown fanatic’.
One leading medic accused him of ‘responding to reasoned argument with petulant contempt’ – a description that could easily apply to this case.
Over the past week, The Mail on Sunday has spoken to other Tory MPs who were in the bar that Monday night. They privately admitted that drinking had gone on past 10pm but would not be drawn on whether Mr Hancock was then in the bar.
Mr Hancock himself was back at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday afternoon, presenting an ideal opportunity for Opposition MPs to challenge him over the curfew row. None did.
Lib Dem health spokesperson Munira Wilson – who had strongly condemned Mr Hancock’s reported joke at the weekend – at least dared to note that he ‘was making jokes about [testing failures] in the Smoking Room, apparently’.
Privately, Tory MPs say Hancock allies were pleading his innocence to them, moaning that he had been ‘stitched up’.
Since Tuesday evening, we have also been giving the Health Secretary the opportunity to deny making the joke but he has failed to do so.
On Wednesday, Charles Walker, the Tory chairman of the Commons Administration Committee which oversees the bars, confirmed to this newspaper that MPs were indeed drinking past 10pm in the Smoking Room the previous Monday. But this was a guilty verdict with a difference – no named culprits.
Mr Walker lamely insisted it would have been unfair – ‘invidious’ even – to have asked staff to identify which MPs were knocking it back after hours.
On Thursday, as if to prevent any further breach of the rules, the Speaker announced that from this weekend, there would be a complete ban on all alcohol sales in Commons bars. Farcically, though, MPs will still be able get a drink – by popping down the corridor to the Lords, which has no such ban.
Meanwhile, Mr Hancock’s spokesman maintains his radio silence.
In a quaint Westminster tradition, Commons doorkeepers at the close of each day’s business shout: ‘Who goes home?’
In Mr Hancock’s case, they might think of noting the time.