Inside the world of Westminster Whatsapps
Inside the world of Westminster Whatsapps: Language expert reveals how Matt Hancock uses ‘golf club banter’, George Osborne is ‘ironic, brief and dismissive’ and Cummings is an ’eminence grise’ in fascinating texts
The trove of 100,000 texts linked to Matt Hancock reveals his love of political clichés, ‘oafish’ gags and ‘golf club banter’ even at the height of the coronavirus crisis, one of the UK’s leading language experts told MailOnline today.
The leak of the former health secretary’s texts has given a glimpse into the workings of government and the thoughts of senior figures such as Boris Johnson and Professor Chris Whitty on lockdowns, masks in schools and shielding.
Tony Thorne, a linguist at King’s College London, has looked at the leaked WhatsApps for MailOnline and reveals what the language used tells about those involved.
He describes Mr Hancock’s texts as distinctly ‘middle-aged and male’ – and packed with ‘golf club banter’. They are also packed with ‘oafish’ emojis, jokes and ‘political jargon’ as well as desperate attempts to impress.
Matt Hancock calls teaching unions ‘a**es’ in a text to Gavin Williamson, then Education Secretary
George Osborne’s withering response to Matt Hancock’s testing regime early in the pandemic
Matt Hancock at a coronavirus press conference on January 11, 2021
The WhatsApps raise questions about his handling of the pandemic and various policy issues – but also reveal his interaction with senior figures including Boris Johnson, Chris Whitty, fellow ministers including Gavin Williamson and former ones such as George Osborne, who was withering of Mr Hancock and his testing regime in his messages.
Mr Johnson was given a maths lesson by colleagues including Dominic Cummings and Chris Whitty – and fought them over shielding, comparing the chance of death from Covid with falling down the stairs.
Tony Thorne looks at the messages and what they say about Mr Hancock and his colleagues and friends.
Expert Tony Thorne said the tone of his messages are distinctly ‘middle-aged and male’ – and packed with ‘golf club banter’ and ‘childish’ emojis.
Some of them contain ‘desperation’ to impress, especially to Boris Johnson and George Osborne, who revels in putting him down.
He said Matt Hancock’s messages are ‘facetious, combative and some would say childish. The language even oafish in places, again given the context’.
He said, given Mr Hancock was in charge of the NHS during the pandemic, his WhatsApps contain ‘inappropriate levity given the desperate circumstances’ and said his ‘joshing’ was ‘even brutal in places’.
In January 2021 Mr Hancock said there was ‘no public clamour’ for lockdown restrictions to be lifted
Mr Hancock speaks in political phrases, a expert says, using ‘policy car crash’ and ‘u-turn’ in one exchange
Matt Hancock texts an advisor in an exchange where he appears to lampoon Gavin Williamson
The academic cited his texts with Gavin Williamson, where he called unions ‘total a***s’, saying it showed that Hancock is a fan of ‘vulgarity’.
The former health secretary, who resigned in disgrace after his affair with Gina Coladangelo, is also addicted to ‘political jargon’
Mr Thorne pointed to messages containing his beloved phrases such as ‘rearguard action’, ‘policy car-crash’ and ‘turn the volume down’.
He said: ‘The exchanges are obviously unguarded and he was not expecting subsequent scrutiny – and this highlights the whole issue of whether politicians and public figures should have to produce their private correspondence and messages’.
The linguist added the leak is bad news from the MP. ‘It will undoubtedly increase pressure from some quarters for investigation of handling of pandemic’, he said.
Boris Johnson speaks bluntly about the chances of surviving Covid
Mr Johnson also struggled to grapple with infections and deaths data
Mr Johnson struggles with his maths, and cracks a joke about it
Mr Thorne said the former PM’s messages show his need to quick answers from his team – and reveal his frustration would boil over if he didn’t get it from them.
The academic said that the language showed that at time Mr Johnsonsometimes didn’t fully understand the issues being discussed – but he didn’t shy away from it, even making fun of himself in the process.
This was shown when he asked about mortality rates and struggled with whether it was a percentage. He said: Eh? So what is 0.04 if it is not a percentage? (Five marks; show working)’
Mr Thorne said :’Boris doesn’t always understand and isn’t about to go into detail for his part but expects instant clarification’.
In other messages, Mr Johnson was skeptical about asking 2.2million older Brits to shield.
He said: ‘If you are over 65 your risk of dying from Covid is probably as big as your risk of falling down stairs. And we don’t stop older people from using stairs.’
In another text he added: ‘If I were an 80 year old and I was told that the choice was between destroying the economy and risking my exposure to a disease that I had a 94 per cent chance of surviving I know what I would prefer.’
Mr Thorne said: ‘His comment on survivability could be seen as callous, cold-blooded and again, given the circumstances and his pivotal involvement. It was a personal, not professional reaction and was brusque rather than reflective and considered’
As he debated it survival rates with Mr Hancock, and masks in schools, Mr Johnson often showed a ‘tone of irritation possibility and seen elsewhere in his public messaging about the pandemic’, Mr Thorne said.
George Osborne’s put downs to Matt Hancock over testing
Isabel Oakeshott’s leak to the Telegraph also contains messages between Mr Hancock and Mr Osborne, the former Chancellor who was then editor of the Evening Standard newspaper.
Mr Hancock told him ‘I WANT TO HIT MY TARGET!’ as he pushed for favourable front-page coverage as he pushed to hit 100,000-tests-a-day target.
George Osborne said in an extraordinary put down: ‘Nobody thinks testing is going down well, Matt’.
It is one of a series of pithy putdowns in the texts.
Mr Thorne said of the exchanges: ‘Hancock comes across as the nervous junior, perhaps craving approval. Osborne the more seasoned operator – pithy, dismissive and chiding.
‘Hancock betrays desperation, especially his use of exclamation marks. But Osborne is again ironic, brief and dismissive’.
Sir Gavin Williamson
Matt Hancock called teaching unions ‘absolute a**es’ in WhatsApp texts to the then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson , who called them lazy
Mr Thorne said that the messages betrayed how different Gavin Williamson’s public persona is when compared to his unguarded texts where he laid into the teaching unions.
Today Sir Gavin said they were about ‘some unions and not teachers’.
Mr Thorne said said: ‘The careful language and choice of inoffensive words, the tone of Williamson’s more recent public tweets defending his actions and words can all be contrasted with the unguarded, sometimes unfortunate candour of the leaked WhatsApp messages’.
Dominic Cummings’ texts are short and authorative
Boris Johnson’s former top advisor also pops up in some exchanges, and pulls the strings. And even gives his boss a maths lesson.
Mr Thorne said: ‘Dominic Cummings is the eminence grise, of few words and a font of instant wisdom’.
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