LONDON — Matthew Hancock is Westminster’s latest comeback kid.
The protégé of former Chancellor George Osborne was going places until Britain voted to leave the European Union. He lost his pre-referendum seat at the Cabinet table in Prime Minister Theresa May’s clear-out of the Cameronites, and was sent back down the ministerial ranks to be digital minister.
Eighteen months on, he has taken charge of the department for digital, culture, media and sport, placing him at the forefront of one of the few policy debates other than Brexit to make headlines in the U.K. — how and, indeed whether, to legislate a fast-moving tech industry, while ensuring the sector thrives after Britain leaves the European Union. This week he will be among a small delegation of U.K. Cabinet ministers rubbing shoulders with the world’s elite in Davos.
His promotion was largely welcomed by the tech industry, which sees Hancock as a rare example of a politician who understands digital, and the 39-year-old wasted no time in raising digital issues at last week’s Cabinet meeting, according to a government official familiar with the discussion.
“He is very easy and quite direct to work with,” said Anthony Walker, deputy chief executive of TechUK, the industry body that represents more than 950 tech companies. “He is somebody who has quickly built up good and constructive relationships across the sector.”
“I do think Matt is very genuine in his belief that this sector really will be the engine of the economy post Brexit” — Tech industry insight
Hancock inherits an in-tray full of other pressing issues — how to tackle press regulation and the gender pay gap at the BBC, for starters.
Looming over everything, as ever, will be Brexit, which presents Hancock with policy questions that may see the interests of the tech industry at odds with the views of his colleagues in Cabinet.
The toughest of these will be immigration. As digital minister, Hancock was strongly lobbied by the industry, which is concerned about access to talent if immigration is restricted post Brexit — something the U.K. prime minister herself has a personal commitment to.
The “biggest issue [for Hancock] is the post-Brexit landscape,” said another senior figure in a large technology company, who did not want to be named. “Fair to say industry was pretty skeptical that the extra 1,000 skilled technical visas announced in November was anywhere near enough.”
Hancock was not available to comment for this article.
Theresa May thought Hancock had “done well as a minister,” according to a U.K. government official, and was “clearly passionate about the digital agenda,” which her government has placed at the heart of its post-Brexit industrial strategy.
Many supporters point to his energy — he even trained to become a jockey in 2012 for a charity horse race at Newmarket in his constituency.
But while Hancock’s evident enthusiasm for technology has paid dividends for his career, MPs on both sides note his naturally partisan instincts which, they suggest, could hamper his ability to get things done in parliament.
An opposition figure with knowledge of Hancock’s work to get the Data Protection Bill through the House of Lords in recent months, describes Hancock as the “political equivalent of an in-betweener” — stuck in sharp-elbowed partisan mode rather than rising above the fray to craft the political compromises needed to guide legislation through parliament.
“He behaves like a SpAd [special adviser], but there is a serious job to be done here, even more so now that he is secretary of state,” he said.
Hancock was Osborne’s chief of staff for five years from 2005 before winning the comfortable Conservative seat of West Suffolk in 2010.
Some peers suspect he was behind aggressive briefings against their amendments in the early stages of the data bill, when discussions are usually more exploratory.
Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd has been forthright in her criticism of tech companies | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
His tweet following a House of Lords amendment requiring the government to proceed with the second stage of a press regulation inquiry also raised eyebrows for its confrontational tone, according to the opposition figure.
“House of Lords have just voted to restrict press freedoms. This vote will undermine high quality journalism, fail to resolve challenges the media face and is a hammer blow to local press,” he wrote. “We support a free press and will seek to overturn these amendments in the Commons.”
Key to Hancock’s success will be his ability to navigate the competing interests of other Cabinet members around the table.
One industry figure who did not want to be named thinks he has helped mediate with the Home Office, which has taken a more hard-line approach to the technology industry over security issues.
The figure also notes Hancock’s deep political ambition means he “reads the tea leaves like everybody else” and has noticed the narrative around technology has shifted in recent years as concern about the practices of media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google has become more widespread.
“I do think Matt is very genuine in his belief that this sector really will be the engine of the economy post Brexit,” the industry insider said. “He is young and has a long political career ahead of him. Getting the economy back to growth matters for him in terms of his own ambitions. I think he has been quite thoughtful about what he needs to do to both achieve the growth but manage the political and policy challenges facing the sector.”
Matthew Hancock, right, at the TechCrunch Disrupt London conference in December 2016 | John Phillips/Getty Images for TechCrunch
While other ministers, like Home Secretary Amber Rudd, have been forthright in their criticisms of tech companies — notably for not acting on hate speech or for violating users’ privacy — Hancock has been more cautious.
He has also been reluctant to get into debates on competition. Asked in the House of Commons about the German competition authority ruling that the collection and use of data by Facebook was abusive, Hancock responded that the question was an “interesting one” but competition rules were “rightly decided on independently in this country.”
In his new role, Hancock will have to continue to take the Data Protection Bill through parliament, deal with the consultation on the government’s new digital charter and will be directly involved in negotiations for the U.K. to achieve so-called “adequacy” — the status granted by the European Commission to countries outside the bloc that judges their levels of personal data protection as being essentially equivalent to the protection guaranteed by the EU, a ruling which some in the industry see as vital post Brexit, the industry figure said.
Walker said that at the cabinet table he would be “dealing more head-on with the complex political challenges” around Brexit and it would be good to have someone who understood the sector at the heart of the debate.