Matt Hancock will hope new job can help restore career and public image

Matt Hancock’s turbulent time working at the heart of the UK’s biggest public health crisis in living memory cost him many allies in the party and his affair caught on camera cost him his dignity and public image.

But his new job as a UN special representative focused on economic development in Africa could be the start of his attempts to rebuild his career. The grand announcement, which included the tweet of his invitation to take up the role, suggests he is keen to turn attention to his new direction.

One senior diplomat with experience of the UN suggested, with raised eyebrows, that the announcement of Hancock’s UN job had evoked rather grander headlines than it deserved. They pointed to others, such as Gordon Brown and the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who have “special envoy” roles appointed by the secretary general. Hancock will report to a UN agency, the Economic Commission for Africa.

No 10 and the Cabinet Office said the government did not nominate Hancock for the role but that permission had been sought from the ministerial watchdog.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said it was poor timing to announce the appointment on the day of a damning report by the health and science select committee into the pandemic. “Apparently, the one British export the Tories are successfully promoting is their own disgraced former cabinet ministers,” she said. “Right now, the only role that Matt Hancock should have is answering questions to the ongoing ICO investigation into his own conduct, and the promised public inquiry which the government continues to delay.”

The former health secretary’s stock was very low by the time of his departure, especially with MPs on the right of the party, because of discontent with lockdown rules, of which he was seen as the main proponent.

Some critics in the party attempted to spread mischievous rumours about a return at the last reshuffle, but Hancock looks likely to remain a backbencher for some time.

Allies of the former health secretary have said since his departure that he will remain deeply loyal to Boris Johnson in hope of a comeback, and feels he has much more to give in government. “I don’t think his career is over,” one former cabinet colleague said. “His delivery skills are extraordinary.”

He still has high-profile friends in government and outside. The Guardian understands it was the campaigner Nimco Ali who introduced Hancock to Dr Vera Songwe, the UN undersecretary general, who made the appointment. Ali, a leading anti-FGM and women’s rights activist, is a Home Office adviser on violence against women and a close personal friend of Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife.

Cabinet ministers and senior MPs were quick to show public support, with tweets from Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Damian Green congratulating Hancock on the move.

Hancock had told allies he was interested in taking up an international role and indicated his interest at a fringe event at the Conservative conference – the only one he attended. He told the audience at the panel on Africa investment, which included Ali and the Kenyan ambassador, that he wanted to turn his focus to bringing private investment to Africa.

The job description will have little to do with Hancock’s expertise in health. He will work to develop policy on new financial markets on the continent and develop green investment facilities. Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, said the appointment was “sickening” because of the UK’s poor record on vaccine access in developing countries.