Matt Hancock has disclosed that Tony Blair has given him advice on how to deal with abuse from Twitter users.
Mr Hancock, who quit as Health Secretary in June, said he had received more than a half a dozen threats in the past six months and told how he is now targeted by anti-vaxxers.
Speaking to Chopper’s Politics podcast (which you can listen to using the audio player above) in his first interview since quitting over a breach in lockdown rules with a married aide, Mr Hancock said he did not tweet himself but was helped with his messages by a team of staff.
Mr Blair, the former Labour prime minister, told him that one of the ways to avoid the abuse was not to look at his notifications on social media.
He said: "I hope he doesn’t mind my saying this, but I got advice from Tony Blair [who said]: ‘Just don’t look at Twitter. What on earth are you looking at that for?’"
‘Completely unacceptable’ abuse
Mr Hancock said there was a disconnect between the abuse he was receiving online with the more favourable response he was treated to by members of the public.
He said: "The public are fantastic. They come up regularly and say things like: ‘Thank you for the vaccine.’ They tell me their lockdown story. ‘Thank you for keeping me safe.’ That isn’t what is reflected in the comments section of social media."
Mr Hancock said it was "completely unacceptable" that he had been threatened with a "public execution" since he stood down as health secretary, adding that these kinds of threats had been in the "high single figures".
Mr Hancock has started a campaign with Rupa Huq, the Labour MP, to curb the abuse aimed at people in public life on social media. The hope is to establish a permanent body to work to improve public debate.
Rupa Huq is working with Matt Hancock to crack down on social media abuse
Credit: Geoff Pugh
Sitting alongside Mr Hancock in the interview, Ms Huq said: "The social media stuff is a constant hum on my timeline. You’ve got to have an armadillo hide.
"But then you stop and think about something like the killing of Sir David Amess, and you think it’s not right, it is not on."
Ms Huq, who was with Sir David on a delegation in the final week of his life, said: "Social media gives people licence to – the gloves come off – and they say stuff that they wouldn’t in real life."
She added: "Half of you think sticks and stones, but you just don’t know what may happen next. There may be people who want to sort of do a copycat attack.
"Women get it worse, women of colour, Muslim women – I’m in a Venn diagram where I’m all three."
Mr Hancock said the courts could not help as libel "doesn’t work anymore because online", adding: "I think we should tackle anonymous accounts. It’s OK to have them so long as there’s recourse – you can find out who."
Mr Hancock called on politicians not to be drawn to abuse others because of the Twitter mob.
He said: "It’s also on us as politicians to rise above this, not to get tempted by the Twitter mob and to make sure that we act, talk and behave – and what we say is in a reasonable way, a reasonable tone and content."
Mr Hancock said he still regarded being an MP as an "enjoyable experience" to make "the country you love a better place".
However, he added that "there are downsides and the downsides oughtn’t be as big".
He added: "If we don’t put a stop to this decline and debasement, then politics itself and therefore democracy itself is at risk.
"If you permanently go down the road of more misinformation, more aggression, more rudeness, then people may not put themselves forward."
Mr Hancock said the worst abuse he had received in person was during the final mile of the London Marathon, when a group of anti-vaxxers targeted him.
Matt Hancock received abuse while running the London Marathon
Credit: Jeff Gilbert
He said: "As I ran down, people were calling out. I had Matt emblazoned on my front. The public were brilliant. There was the occasional comedy remark, but largely the public were just classic ‘go on, go for it’."
That was “until the last mile, when there was this anti-vaxx protest”.
He added: “It was very unpleasant. But the result was that I ran that last mile faster than any of the other miles of the marathon."
Mr Hancock added that he "very much" hoped that Christmas would not have to be cancelled for the second year running, amid rising coronavirus deaths.
"Unlike last year, the vaccine programme is providing that protection that allows us all the freedom to be in the Red Lion and is keeping people safe,” he said.
"So the vaccine is working. And I think these are always difficult judgments."
He added that his successor, Sajid Javid, was “doing an absolutely superb job, in very difficult circumstances”.
Matt Hancock's interview with Christopher Hope was the former Health Secretary's first since his resignation
Credit: Geoff Pugh
Listen to Christopher Hope’s full interview with Matt Hancock and Rupa Huq, along with other guests Matt Forde and Camilla Tominey, on the latest episode of Chopper’s Politics, The Telegraph’s weekly political podcast. Listen using the audio player at the top of this article or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.