Isabel Oakeshott: the journalist who turned over Matt Hancock

Conservative MPs astonished that Hancock entrusted private correspondence to journalist accused of having poor track record for protecting sources

When Matt Hancock entrusted more than 100,000 of his personal WhatsApp messages to Isabel Oakeshott, he hoped the political journalist would help him write a book to rehabilitate his reputation as a pro-lockdown British health secretary during the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, Oakeshott has admitted leaking the entire archive of messages to the Daily Telegraph, which is planning days of critical anti-lockdown stories about Hancock’s role in the pandemic.

Setting aside the merits of the news stories being underpinned by the trove of messages, Conservative MPs and political journalists have expressed some astonishment that Hancock entrusted millions of words of his private correspondence to Oakeshott, of all people.

A journalist who has long made clear her disdain for his lockdown policies, she has been accused of having a poor track record when it comes to source protection, and is in a relationship with the leader of the anti-lockdown Reform party.


As Robert Colvile, the director of the rightwing Centre for Policy Studies thinktank and co-author of the 2019 Tory manifesto, said: “The main lesson I’ve learned from this is not to hire someone who absolutely hates your signature policy as your ghostwriter.”

One political journalist said: “The man needs his head testing to have gone near Oakeshott with a flaming trebuchet, let alone a bargepole.”

Extraordinarily Oakeshott handed the entire archive of Hancock’s messages to the Daily Telegraph despite being paid a rumoured six-figure salary by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK to be a pundit on its struggling TalkTV channel.

Staff at the Sun and the (London) Times have been left fuming that they are now trying to follow up a story given to a rival newspaper by one of their own employees – while TalkTV has missed out on a scoop that could have helped it in its ratings battle with GB News.

For her part, Oakeshott wrote she was morally obliged to leak the messages because “a great deal of material that is overwhelmingly in the public interest” was left out of Hancock’s book, which was published last December.

“Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear,” she offered by way of justification for passing the messages to the Daily Telegraph.

The leak is the latest step in Oakeshott’s journey from political reporter to a self-described “passionate Brexiteer” commentator, which has featured some high-profile stories that have not always worked out well for her sources.

While political editor of the Sunday Times in 2011 she was in touch with Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of the former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne. Pryce mentioned that she had once taken speeding points on behalf of Huhne. In follow-up emails the pair discussed how best to deploy the information to damage Huhne’s career, with Oakeshott ultimately publishing a front page story that prompted police to re-examine the driving incident.

What happened next has dogged Oakeshott’s journalism career since. The Crown Prosecution Service – led by the future Labour leader Keir Starmer – requested the correspondence between Oakeshott and Pryce. A judge agreed with Starmer’s request and – rather than protect its source – the Sunday Times and Oakeshott complied with the order. The material proved to be crucial evidence at trials in which both Pryce and Huhne were found guilty of perverting the course of justice and sent to prison.

Despite the convention that journalists should always do their utmost to protect their sources, Oakeshott stood by her decision to hand over the material. She said she had warned Pryce of the legal risks of running the story and insisted it was “not my job to provide expert criminal advice”.

After leaving the Sunday Times she took a different approach, writing a biography of the then prime minister, David Cameron, in conjunction with the disgruntled Tory peer Michael Ashcroft. Despite extensive research, Call Me Dave failed to get close to Cameron’s inner circle and is mainly remembered for its allegation that the prime minister engaged in sexual congress with a dead pig while at a decadent university party.

One problem was that this tale was not necessarily true. Oakeshott later told a book festival she had been told the story by a Conservative MP, saying: “It’s my judgment that the MP was not making it up, although I accept there was a possibility he could have been slightly deranged.”

She said she relied on a single source, and criticism of her claim rested on the false premise “that things that are written in books need to have the same standard as things that are written in newspapers”.

Her leak of Hancock’s messages is not the first time she has shared a cache of private messages provided to her by a political figure while ghostwriting a book.

In 2016 she helped produce Arron Banks’ Bad Boys of Brexit book, in which she was handed the Leave.EU founder’s text messages and emails to help reconstruct a narrative of the EU referendum campaign. Two years later, having sat on the messages, she shared previously unpublished correspondence with the Sunday Times that suggested Banks had more meetings with Russian officials than he had previously disclosed.

Further front pages followed when she obtained leaked internal government correspondence in which Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington DC, criticised the regime of then president Donald Trump as “inept” and “utterly dysfunctional”. Darroch was forced to resign on the basis his position had become untenable as a result of the leaks.

Yet while the story was credited to Oakeshott, it was later revealed it had come from a teenage freelance journalist called Steven Edginton who also did work for the Brexit Party. He passed the story to Oakeshott and kept his name off it to avoid “possible controversy”.

Some Tories also expressed surprise that Hancock entrusted his records to Oakeshott, given she is in a long-term relationship with Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK. This is a rebranded version of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which hopes to take votes off the Conservatives at the next election.

The duo have appeared as co-hosts of programmes on TalkTV, most recently interviewing former chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng together, although their mixed performances have led someone at the station to describe them as “a shit Richard and Judy”.

Despite her record, Oakeshott’s decision to turn on Hancock – blindsiding the former cabinet minister – is seen as particularly brutal. Just three months ago she was proudly promoting the book, appearing at its launch and writing in in the Spectator that she was “not paid a penny” for the year she spent on the project but it “was richly rewarding in other ways”.

She said she disagreed with Hancock on many points but concluded there was not any malign intent on the part of political leaders during the coronavirus pandemic. “They may have been misguided; and got some things catastrophically wrong, but mistakes were made in good faith.”

One theory as to why she leaked Hancock’s messages is that her decision to co-write his book was causing problems for her as a rightwing pundit in the so-called culture wars. One News UK source said: “This liaison with Hancock was not good for her brand. Her brand is anti-lockdown headbangers.”

As for Hancock, the politician turned reality TV star may be wondering whether it was worth writing his memoir at all. Despite Oakeshott’s assistance – and the publicity of him being on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! – the book sold fewer than 4,000 copies in its first two weeks on sale. Many more people will now read the correspondence that didn’t make the cut. – Guardian