June 28, 2021

Whoever thought Matt Hancock would be brought down by an affair? It has been incredibly retro to see a high-profile politician forced to fall on his sword on account of his, well, sword. But finally, nearly three decades after John Major mooted it, we’re back to basics.

Nothing about Matt Hancock has previously suggested a man of untrammelled sensuality. And yet there he is, getting deeply into a clinch with his aide Gina Coladangelo during office hours. Is this really the same Matt Hancock we once saw clumsily attempting parkour, jumping over small obstacles with an expression of fierce determination? The Matt Hancock who appeared, inexplicably, to conduct his early-pandemic video interviews from a small, red cupboard? Matt Hancock, the objectively ridiculous person, destroyed by passion?

Even his scandals had a vibe of hapless enthusiasm rather than malice. Buying £30m of PPE from a man with no prior experience making medical equipment who used to run his local? Breaking the ministerial code by giving an NHS contract to his family (and failing to declare his own interest in the firm)? Official business done from his private email? You can imagine Hancock sealing the deals with the same nod of unguarded satisfaction that he gives after vaulting a very low wall: another problem surmounted by Matt Hancock!

When Dominic Cummings published a text from Boris Johnson calling Hancock “totally fucking hopeless”, no one really cared because it’s what most people thought anyway.

Bafflingly, he survived it all. And it seems possible that he might even have survived this latest humiliation if it hadn’t seemed so disconcertingly off-brand: Hancock, after all, was the sex stasi of the pandemic. When Professor Neil Fergusson was busted in an assignation with a woman during lockdown, Hancock primly commented that the social distancing rules “are there for everyone”, and called for Ferguson to be investigated by police. And while families were missing the funerals of their loved ones, Hancock was having his knee-trembler against an office door.

Boris would have let him off. How could he do otherwise? The Prime Minister’s uncounted children and multiple acts of callousness to wives and lovers leave no mark with the public because this is what we expect: no matter what he promised his women, he never promised us that he would be anything other than a cad. But the public didn’t feel the same about the Health Secretary; Hancock’s hypocrisy couldn’t be borne.

The affair itself is another matter. There is a current culture of increasing permissiveness which led even the Bishop of Manchester, to say that he was “more worried about the fact that he failed to keep the social distancing than I am about the fact that here was a middle aged bloke having a bit of a fling.” Clearly, it’s something a lot of people do. And despite reigning stereotypes of hapless horndog husbands, the data increasingly suggests that adultery is committed just as regularly by women as it is for men. (Hancock’s affair partner is married too.)

Women might actually be the ones with the greatest incentive to cheat: in her 2018 book Untrue, the writer Wednesday Martin pointed out that it’s women who experience the greatest dissatisfaction in long-term relationships, and women whose libidos are most likely to tank within monogamy. (Hence the rumoured condition of “Lesbian Bed Death” in long-term relationships between women.)

This makes an obvious kind of sense if you think about it for any amount of time at all. The legal and social structures that govern our relationships are, after all, patriarchal: products of male power, and so unlikely to reflect women’s own interests. In Martin’s argument, when straight relationships have an imbalance between a male partner who wants more sex and a female partner who wants to be left alone, it’s not because the woman is innately less frisky. She’s just bored off her tits.

This current upswing of tolerance for adultery is probably partly a result of feminism successfully unpicking some of the double standards against female sexuality, and partly a result of the internet eroding the distinction between “thinking” and “doing”. Thanks to Facebook messenger, you don’t even need to bother to book a hotel room to put on the scarlet letter in your own lunch hour.

More importantly, there’s not that much to be afraid of these days. (Or at least, there wasn’t until early 2020.) Antiretrovirals mean AIDs is no longer a hateful reaper scything after desire, and antibiotics are holding out — just about, for now — against the rest of the STDs. Modern contraception is a reliable guard against pregnancy.

Advice columnist Dan Savage advances a “monogamish” approach, where each partner makes room for each other’s foibles rather than enforcing a doctrinaire version of absolute fidelity; the psychotherapist Esther Perel, in her book The State of Affairs, eloquently argues that unfaithfulness isn’t always a comment on the relationship itself. People in “good” relationships cheat, and sometimes “good” people become cheaters. “The victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage,” she has written.

Still, affairs do have victims, as Savage and Perel would agree. In Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn, published in 1983, narrator Rachel has discovered that her husband is having an affair. “When something like this happens,” she explains, “you suddenly have no sense of reality at all. You have lost a piece of your past. The infidelity itself is small potatoes compared to the low-level brain damage that results when a whole chunk of your life turns out to be different from what you thought it was.”

The pain of being cheated on is the pain of realising your most intimate life has been a fiction authored on someone else’s terms. A friend of mine, currently writing a memoir about being married to a serially unfaithful man, sees the propensity to cheat as a matter of character: “Surely that’s the most important context in which you’re truthful — to the person that you lie nose-to-nose with in bed. If you can’t be truthful to them, then you’re absolutely not going to be truthful in any other context.”

But besides the deceit, what runs through the account of Hancock’s actions is the casual carelessness about his wife’s feelings. It’s reported that he woke their eight-year-old child to say he was leaving the family home — and then, presumably, left his wife Martha to deal with the children’s distress as well as her own shock. In his letter of resignation, he says sorry to his “family and loved ones”, but never directly to Martha, who surely after 15 years of marriage deserved a personal apology for the public devastation of her life.

There are even “friends” of Hancock briefing that the relationship with Coladengelo is a “love match”. It’s one kind of lapse to cheat, and perhaps it’s another to get caught, but to lack even the belated discretion to grant some dignity to the person you hurt — the person who in this case had your children, supported your career, and who you once promised to forsake all others for — seems a gratuitous kind of cruelty. Hancock may well be besotted with Coladengelo, but he seems to have fallen at least as hard for the myth of his own romantic exceptionalism.

There is nothing special about adulterers. All hearts are messy implements, all desire is untidy, all people are capable of hurting those who love them and being hurt in turn. One of the unedifying things about the orgy of moralism towards MPs in the Nineties was that the journalists indulging in it belonged to an industry that was hardly known for its sexual rectitude. But coronavirus made private lives into a matter of policy, and Hancock was the most enthusiastic advocate of all for this. His failure to apply that to himself is, in the end, the thing that makes him most ridiculous of all.