The Conservative Party’s co-chair has admitted Matt Hancock’s COVID rule-breaking was partly to blame for their by-election loss in Batley and Spen – but refused on 19 occasions to say whether the former health secretary was being investigated.
Amanda Milling described the party’s failure to take the West Yorkshire seat from Labour as “a really disappointing result”.
And she acknowledged that Mr Hancock‘s breaching of coronavirus restrictions – as he conducted an affair with an aide in his office – had prompted concern from local voters.
“It was something that came up on the doorstep, I have to be honest about that,” Ms Milling told Sky News.
But the Tory co-chair refused on 19 separate occasions to state whether Mr Hancock’s rule-breaking – or his employment of Gina Coladangelo at taxpayers’ expense – were subject to an investigation.
Mr Hancock quit as health secretary over the scandal, but is now also facing calls to quit as an MP following the publication of a video of him kissing Ms Coladangelo in his office.
It was reported this week that the ex-cabinet minister is considering how to rebuild his political career.
Asked about the handling of Mr Hancock’s rule-breaking, Ms Milling – who is responsible for party administration – said: “Matt did the right thing at the weekend, which was to resign.
“And within 24 hours of the story breaking we had a new health secretary and Sajid Javid’s doing a tremendous job.”
Ms Milling repeatedly refused to say whether an investigation was being held into Mr Hancock’s behaviour, although she suggested the ex-health secretary would not be facing further action.
“He has now resigned so I would see that as, kind of, the matter is closed,” she said.
“Matt resigned at the weekend, he is no longer the health secretary and now our focus has got to be on getting those vaccines rolled out and getting the country back to normal.”
Asked about the impact of the scandal on the Tories’ performance in Batley and Spen, where the Conservatives lost a fiercely-fought contest to Labour by 323 votes, Ms Milling said: “They had some issues over the weekend in terms of what happened.
“But Matt resigned and that was the right thing to do.
“There was a whole host of different issues that came up. But we also need to remember that governing parties don’t gain by-elections.
“And, actually, taking it to such a small number of votes in itself was a tremendous result – quite extraordinary I would say.”
Despite clinching Hartlepool from Labour in May, the Tories have now lost two by-elections in a row after their defeat to the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham last month.
“Each of these by-elections is a unique challenge, it was really disappointing to lose Chesham and Amersham,” Ms Milling said.
“We fought a really hard fight. But let’s be really clear about this, this [Batley and Spen] was not a great win for the Labour Party.
“We really took the fight to them. They only won by a matter of just over 300 votes.”
And, highlighting how the Tories had not won the Batley and Spen seat as part of their general election victory, Ms Milling added: “This was always going to be a really tough battle for us – we didn’t win this in 2019.
“Governing parties don’t tend to win by-elections. And we have to be clear on this, this is a Labour hold, not a Labour gain, not a win.”