“What the bejesus is going on?” The words of Chris Moyles this week, upon hearing that he had been eliminated from I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! while Matt Hancock continued to rake in the public votes. Moyles looked genuinely appalled by the result. “I’m gutted,” he said, “that Matt Hancock is more popular than me.”
You could forgive the former Radio 1 DJ for his befuddlement. When the celebrities entered the jungle on November 6, Hancock’s public approval rating was somewhere on a scale between Idi Amin and James Corden. Those in favour of lockdowns hated him because of his failures during the pandemic. Those opposed to lockdowns hated him for locking down at all. Everyone hated him for flouting the Government’s own social distancing rules to have an office grope with his mistress, before he publicly dumped his wife.
Ofcom was flooded with complaints from viewers who objected to his very presence on the show. What about the deaths of care home residents on his watch as Health Secretary? What about his constituents? And yet, three weeks later, things have changed. On Question Time this week, an audience member said he would boot Hancock out of politics tomorrow, but conceded: “The thing is, the country has tried to dishonour him, to bring him down, to embarrass him – but I’ve got to give the man credit, he’s socked them in the eye.”
It doesn’t matter who is crowned King or Queen of the Jungle on Sunday night. By beginning to rehabilitate his image, Hancock can be considered I’m A Celebrity’s true winner. The question is, where does he go from here?
“His career was at a pretty low point and he didn’t have much to lose,” says Andrew Bloch, a leading PR adviser whose clients include Lord Sugar. “The adverse feeling towards him was pretty strong. But he has endeared himself to viewers and done better than I or many others were expecting him to do. I still think there is a way to go, and I don’t think it’s all going to be a bed of roses for him when he comes out. But when you’re in politics, especially for government ministers, people forget that you’re a human being. He has shown his human side.”
As expected, the public repeatedly voted for Hancock to take part in the show’s grisly Bushtucker Trials. He proved surprisingly good at these – when you’ve endured those terrible Covid press conferences, what terrors can a kangaroo penis really hold? – and never complained, unlike his more lily-livered campmates.
Sympathy for him began to swell when the show’s most forthright contestants challenged him on his handling of the pandemic, which led to viewer complaints that he was being bullied. Brits like an underdog.
In his nightly appearances on the show, Hancock has striven to come across as a good egg. Friends insist this is his real personality. “People are seeing the true Matt, rather than the man behind the podium,” one supporter says. “He is the most optimistic person I’ve ever met.” Some observers are more cynical. According to PR expert Mark Borkowski, ITV has deliberately shown Hancock in a positive light.
“ITV edited it very carefully to keep him in,” Borkowski claims. “What has cleverly been worked on is TikTok, where the younger audience were instructed what to do to keep Matt Hancock in through the free ITV app. They paid him a phenomenal amount of money to be there. The fact that everybody is talking about him is great for ITV. Having him there until the final days keeps eyeballs right to the end of the show, which keeps advertisers happy.”
According to those who know him well, nobody loves Matt Hancock as much as Matt Hancock loves himself. “The ego is huge,” says one friend. “He’s basically a total prat.” His publicity stunts include releasing a video of himself doing parkour, and taking an impromptu dip in the Serpentine in January before posing for the photographer in his swimming trunks. There has been much speculation about his reasons for going on I’m A Celebrity – does he need the reported £400,000 fee (of which some will be donated to charity) for his impending divorce, or is he planning an Ed Balls-style career in light entertainment?
The general feeling in Westminster and beyond is that Hancock simply loves attention and, if that is not available via a Cabinet position, it will have to be found in other ways. He is also convinced that he has been unfairly maligned over his Covid response and his extra-marital affair (“I fell in love,” he told his fellow campers in a plea for understanding), and believed the primetime show would be the perfect vehicle to set the record straight.
In a further attempt to burnish his alpha-male credentials, he will be seen in the New Year on Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins contest. It was filmed earlier this year, and rumour has it that he wins the show. The I’m A Celebrity timing is smart, too, aiding publicity for the December 6 publication of his book, Pandemic Diaries.
“Matt’s first love is politics and that is where he sees his future,” says a close friend. It is a fact, however, that Hancock twice turned down I’m A Celebrity’s producers over the summer, only to change his mind after it became clear that there would be no place for him in Rishi Sunak’s government (a viral video of Sunak ignoring Hancock outside No 10 on the day that he was appointed Prime Minister seems to capture the exact moment that realisation hit).
Life on the backbenches is not what this ambitious politician has in mind, and the decision could be out of his hands anyway: MPs have until December 5 to tell Conservative Party HQ if they plan to stand for re-election, which can only happen if Hancock has the whip restored. And, come the general election, voters in his West Suffolk constituency may register their displeasure at his decision to abandon them for an extended stay in the jungle. Hancock’s estranged wife, Martha, is a much-loved figure in the constituency. She has maintained a dignified silence over his behaviour but her family and friends are said to take a dim view of his reality show appearance. Hancock’s girlfriend, Gina Coladangelo, flew out to Australia in preparation for their emotional reunion outside camp.
Hancock can look enviously at the post-Westminster career of his great friend, George Osborne, who moved effortlessly into careers in the media and banking. But being a former Chancellor of the Exchequer looks better on a CV than groping one’s way through a pandemic response. Experts do not expect I’m A Celebrity to open many doors, although pantomime villain offers are expected to flood in.
The I’m A Celebrity bounce will be short-lived, predicts Borkowski. “The show’s popularity comes because it’s right at the start of the pre-Christmas season on TV. There’s always a lot of media attention on someone, whether it’s Gillian McKeith or Carol Thatcher, someone that everybody gets obsessed about. Two or three weeks after the show, it’s gone.”
Others are more positive. “It’s difficult to know what his next move is going to be,” says Bloch. “I’m sure there’ll be plenty of short-term opportunities for chat shows and student nights and whatever. He’ll be popular on the speaking circuit.”
“I think he needs to take his time and not get carried away. He’ll be pleased with how he’s come across – he’s got to a decent stage but it doesn’t mean this will be an overnight fix. We have seen politicians take a break and come back, so even if he does take a break from politics it doesn’t mean that his political career is over. So he’s got his options. He’s certainly come out of it in a better place than he went in, which is probably the best outcome that he could have hoped for.”