Health Secretary Matt Hancock was at the centre of an extraordinary Government leak inquiry last night after the Prime Minister was forced to announce the second national lockdown two days earlier than planned.
Downing Street officials were infuriated on Friday evening to read details of the lockdown in the first editions of the Saturday newspapers, just hours after the decision had been taken by the 'quad' of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Mr Hancock.
It forced Mr Johnson to bring forward the announcement of the measure from Monday to yesterday, despite many details still being finalised.
The leak meant that the shutdown was on the front pages before the rest of the Cabinet had been told about the decision.
Yesterday, Downing Street announced a formal inquiry.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is at the centre of a Government leak inquiry after Prime Minister Boris Johnson is forced to announce lockdown two days early [File photo]
A senior Government source told The Mail on Sunday: 'There were four people in that meeting, plus trusted officials who never, ever betray confidences. You have to ask who would benefit from getting it all out there before the boss has the chance to row back.'
Mr Hancock is one of the leading lockdown 'doves', having consistently argued for the protection of the NHS to be given priority over the economy.
However, other sources pointed the finger at Mr Gove – the other 'dove' in the quad – and suggested that Mr Hancock was being made the 'fall guy' for the leak.
That claim was flatly denied by Mr Gove's spokesman. One source said: 'Our rat, whoever it is, seems to be very chatty at the moment.'
It is not the first time Mr Hancock has been accused by his political enemies of leaking to bolster his position.
Earlier this month, the decision to apply Tier 3 restrictions on areas of the North appeared in the media before it had been signed off by the Prime Minister, leading Government figures to openly speculate that Mr Hancock had been involved.
In August, Mr Hancock was blamed by officials in the Education Department when critical lockdown guidance for schools – saying secondary pupils might be kept home on a rota every two weeks – was issued just before midnight on a Friday evening.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a second lockdown for England on Saturday. The measure will come into effect on Thursday and is expected to last until December 2
The bizarre timing made it less likely to be scrutinised. And in May, during the height of the pandemic's first wave, Government sources said that Mr Hancock was 'living on borrowed time' in the Cabinet after Mr Johnson had raised questions about his department's grip on the crisis, only for the Minister to plead: 'That's not fair – give me a break.'
The Mail on Sunday revealed three weeks ago that a Tory MP claimed to have seen Mr Hancock in the Commons Smoking Room bar beyond his own 10pm drinks curfew after cracking an insensitive joke about the failures of the Government's test and trace system.
Mr Hancock refused 30 times to answer this newspaper's question as to whether he returned to the bar after a 9.40pm vote on October 5.
The Health Secretary has stuck to a carefully worded statement that said 'no rules have been broken', adding that although he was in the bar that night, he had 'departed the parliamentary estate to go home' after the vote.
An ally of Mr Hancock said: 'These leak claims are categorically untrue and this will be demonstrated by the investigation. The Health Secretary spends his time dealing with the global pandemic and protecting lives, not briefing journalists.'