In the run-up to Matt Hancock’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity, it was widely speculated that he would be subjected to all the most gruesome challenges. In that respect, his first episode did not fail to deliver.
The hosts Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly – and probably much of the nation – could barely contain their delight as the former health secretary was forced to crawl through tiny, dark tunnels where he was showered with bugs and sludge.
Hancock made his debut on the show in its fourth episode, which aired on Wednesday night, alongside the comedian Seann Walsh. The pair went straight into their first trial, named Beastly Burrows, which involved feeling their way through dark, muddy tunnels and feeling around for the stars that represent achievement in the trials.
Notable moments include Hancock squealing while insects and thick liquid were poured on him from above. He provided ample comic opportunity for his comedian campmate, asking him: “Which way do you want me to go?” prompting Walsh to respond: “I’m not a satnav, I don’t know!”
Hancock’s inclusion is seen as an attempt by the producers to buoy ratings, which have been flagging in recent seasons. The launch episode – which aired on Sunday after Hancock’s participation was announced – drew an average of 9 million viewers, with a peak of more than 10 million at one point, an increase on last year’s 10-year low of 8 million.
Viewers were surprised not to see Hancock in the launch, as he had landed in Australia on 1 November. McPartlin and Donnelly hinted that he would join soon, confirming that they would shortly be “rolling out the welcome mat” for new arrivals.
Both Walsh, 36, and Hancock, 44, have sought to rehabilitate their images after kissing scandals. Hancock resigned as health secretary for breaking Covid rules by having an affair with his aide, while Walsh was pictured kissing his dance partner on Strictly, prompting his partner at the time to accuse him of emotional abuse.
Hancock’s decision to join the show was met with widespread criticism from parliamentary colleagues as he is a serving MP and will be away from his West Suffolk constituents for its duration, although the producers will allow him to communicate with them and he will hold catchup surgeries upon his return.
He had the Conservative party whip removed and the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, expressed his “disappointment”.
Hancock had his phone removed by the producers after landing in Australia and may not be fully aware of the scale of backlash.
Speaking before his debut on the show, Hancock defended his decision, saying it ws driven by looking for “different ways to communicate with the public”, especially young people.
In a letter to constituents in which he acknowledged their “concerns”, he said he did not “expect to serve in government again” and that he could support Sunak “in other ways” as there were “many ways to do the job of being an MP”.
He plans to use the platform to raise the profile of his dyslexia screening bill, which aims to help children receive diagnoses earlier, and will donate part of his fee from the show to causes including the British Dyslexia Association.
Hancock has expressed fears about running into snakes in the jungle, but not about other challenges. “I have never come across a snake at close quarters and so I am pretty worried about anything to do with snakes. I am not claustrophobic, or at least I haven’t been found to be, but that’s the thing about I’m a Celebrity – it is the unknown,” he said.
Addressing whether he thought his colleagues in parliament and the British public would be voting for him to do trials, he said he “wouldn’t be surprised”.
The shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, told Sky News that Hancock’s appearance on the show “demeans politics and the job that we do”, but confessed that he would tune in to see how his parliamentary colleague was progressing.
Asked whether he would vote for Hancock to eat crocodile anus during the trials, Reynolds replied: “I think there will be a landslide across the country for Matt being volunteered for that kind of thing.”
I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! continues on Thursday at 9pm on ITV and ITV Hub.