Why Matt Hancock won't last long on I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here - David Behrens

Politics and showbusiness have one thing in common – a need at some level to be liked. Matt Hancock will have to reflect on that as he forsakes the Commons dining room for a diet of crocodile entrails in the Australian jungle.

His tenure on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is almost certain to be over as soon as it’s put to the public vote, as can also be said for his remaining time at Westminster. Seldom has a politician been so universally disliked, and his apparent obliviousness to the fact is his greatest character flaw. That and the general streak of stupidity that ran through his career.

The former Health Secretary attempted to justify his appearance on tomorrow night’s [SUN] freak show by saying he wanted to “go to where the people are”. This was more than a little disingenuous – had he wanted to mingle with regular people he could have joined them outside the Job Centre on Monday and saved himself a few months of ridicule.

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But that would have denied him the ITV appearance fee that was clearly his real motivation for trashing his reputation even more comprehensively than he had already managed.

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to appear on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. PIC: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty ImagesFormer Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to appear on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. PIC: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to appear on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. PIC: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

We don’t know exactly how much Hancock’s half-hour in the spotlight is costing the network because there is no flat rate for the job. Like any TV show, pay depends on popularity, and there is a difference between people the public want to see, and people they want to see made fools of. A more percipient person – politician or performer – would know that.

But self-awareness has never been Hancock’s stock-in-trade – not since the revelation that he breached Covid restrictions by conducting an extra-marital affair with an aide he had appointed to the Health Department.

He attempted to defend his actions earlier this year, telling a radio interviewer that he had broken the rules only because he had “fallen in love” – as if that in any way excused him.

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The insensitivity was breathtaking. There wasn’t a soul in Britain who hadn’t fallen in or out of love, lost someone close to them or suffered lasting emotional or financial harm as a result of the strictures he’d put in place – but most of us obeyed the rules nevertheless, because we wanted to believe he and the Government were acting ultimately in our best interests. Hancock betrayed that trust, and that – not a post-political career as a self-styled celebrity on the fringes of show business – will be his legacy.

Yet such is the allure of fame, and the shock of suddenly losing it, that others are unlikely to be deterred from following him. Look out for Liz Truss on Strictly Come Dancing next year, tripping over her partner’s flamenco shoes but insisting the sacrifice was necessary in order to move forward.

This inability to separate reality from TV’s version of it has afflicted many a politician over the years. Penny Morduant belly-flopped her way through a celebrity diving competition; Ed Balls danced embarrassingly to Gangnam Style on Strictly; and Edwina Currie and Nadine Dorries trod the path to the ITV jungle. None emerged with any credibility, nor commanded the asking price of an actual celebrity. Michael Portillo managed the transition more successfully but only at the expense of being condemned to eternity stuck on Britain’s appalling trains.

And while no-one on that cast list can claim to have ever courted real popularity, none was as actively reviled as Matt Hancock. If it’s ignominy on that scale you’re looking for, you have to turn away from politics and towards Michael Barrymore – a genuine celebrity from the 1990s who was as popular then as Ant and Dec are now. He had Saturday night shows on ITV and BBC One, and unlike most of those in the jungle this weekend, he could write his own pay cheque. Yet when revelations about his private life emerged in the tabloids, he became a pariah overnight. The audience had decided he was not the man they thought –and he thus broke the cardinal rule that the first requirement of a popular entertainer is to be popular.

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Matt Hancock’s story is Barrymore’s in reverse. He has demonstrated that he is exactly the man we thought – only worse. It is a misjudgment that will haunt him, for as Mr Balls discovered at the 2015 election in Morley, it’s not just entertainers who need to be popular.

His ordeal in Australia will be a televised public execution, and in that respect ITV is indeed giving the public what it wants. But the attraction of seeing him made to eat bits of a crocodile will last only so long. When the novelty wears off, all we will want to see is the crocodile eating bits of him.