When Matt Hancock entered the I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! jungle, pundits predicted he would be the first to be voted out.
His decision to appear on the ITV show, despite his record during the pandemic and the fact he is a sitting MP, had provoked anger and disgust. More than 1,700 people complained to Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group issued a searing statement.
“The fact that he is trying to cash in on his terrible legacy, rather than showing some humility or seeking to reflect on the appalling consequences of his time in government, says it all about the sort of person he is,” a spokesperson said.
But despite the criticism – or perhaps because of it – the former health secretary has won the backing of an unlikely crowd, lasting more than two weeks in the jungle and surviving eight eliminations to make it to the final today.
Support from young TikTok users – boosted by a concerted effort from his PR team – appears to have been key to his on-screen success, according to public relations experts and political rivals.
Over the past few days, before the final on ITV on Sunday evening, members of Hancock’s PR team were lobbying for votes on the app – encouraging people to vote for him repeatedly and giving them step-by-step instructions.
One video, addressed to “team Matt”, said their mission was to “keep Matt in the jungle”. It added that they should “download the I’m a Celebrity... app and vote five times,” or call the voting number. “Always use all my votes to keep Matt in!” one TikTokker wrote in response. Another video was billed as a “step by step guide to keep Matt in the jungle” and showed someone scrolling through the app on their phone and voting for Hancock repeatedly.
The TikTok campaign is not a breach of the rules: ITV’s website says viewers can vote up to five times each via the app, while those voting by text or phone can vote up to 600 times from a single number before it is deemed suspicious and unfair to the other contestants.
But it is a deliberate strategy. Since 8 November, Hancock’s PR team has posted 24 videos of him on the app, all linked to his appearance in the jungle. He now has more than 77,000 followers and at least 511,800 likes across his official TikTok account, while videos of him overall have been watched 400 million times, according to TikTok’s internal data.
Aside from Hollyoaks actor Owen Warner, the equivalent stats for other stars are far poorer. Former rugby player Mike Tindall, who was voted out last night, has less than 3,500 followers, with just over 26,000 likes, while what appears to be the official account for former England footballer Jill Scott, who was tipped as the favourite to win going into the final tonight, has about 2,180 followers and less than 900 likes.
On Twitter and Instagram, the other I’m a Celebrity... contestants admittedly have a bigger presence. But it is TikTok – where videos have been promoted by the algorithm and hashtags such as #matthancockfanclub have gained traction – that has been so crucial for Hancock, said PR guru Mark Borkowski.
“I think TikTok has been quite important to him. I think [users] see him as some sort of anomaly, something that is winding up the older generation, so why don’t we just play mischief?” Borkowski said. He added: “The people instructing him back in Blighty have done a very good job with TikTok. A lot of it is instructing the audience what to do, to use the app, how to vote for Matt. And that bit has been clever.”
But software used by Borkowski’s team to track media coverage shows comments on articles and social media posts about Hancock, 44, are still largely negative. During his time as health secretary, the MP for West Suffolk oversaw the unlawful discharge of hospital patients into care homes at the height of the pandemic and broke transparency rules by failing to publish details of multibillion-pound government PPE contracts. He was subsequently forced to resign as health secretary after the Sun published footage of him kissing his aide Gina Coladangelo while social distancing rules were in place.
While Borkowksi believes that the public’s view of Hancock remains dim, he says younger fans could help him win. He does not believe it will pay off, however. “I don’t think he has a political career after it. I think he’ll be ridiculed,” Borkowksi said. “He’s like a pantomime villain. I can see him doing odd advertising campaigns.”
Ian Houlder, a Conservative councillor in Hancock’s West Suffolk seat, was equally scathing. He too believes Hancock’s success on the programme is down to younger audiences. “I think it’s down to demographics; it’s the Corbyn effect,” said Houlder, 73.
He wants Hancock to resign but fears his TV stint will embolden him in future, and called on the local Conservative association to hold a membership vote on deselecting him. “What I hope is that he doesn’t come back thinking: ‘I’m the most famous person in England and I’m going to carry on as MP.’ I’ll go absolutely spare. It’s awful that he thinks he can just walk away from his constituency,” he said.
Jo Hemmings, a behavioural and media psychologist, was more positive in her assessment. She said Hancock had defied expectations on the show by getting to the final and coming across as “someone who has more human qualities than perhaps they anticipated and as not such a bad guy after all”.
She admits to being baffled by the sea change in public opinion – from him being seen as the face of pandemic mishandling, rule-breaking and death to being viewed as likable campmate - and believes it will have upended producers’ expectations.
“They were playing with people’s minds by putting him in there. He clearly isn’t perceived as a villain of the piece. I think he was put in to fulfil that role,” she said.
“He went in there to be laughed at, humiliated, punished and actually he has done well,” she added. “He’s getting out of it what he intended to get out of it.”
Hancock’s team said he had been “working on constituency matters” in the jungle, adding that the programme’s“producers have agreed that Matt can communicate with his team if there’s an urgent constituency matter while he’s on the show”.“As soon as Matt’s time in camp is up, he will return to Suffolk to hold surgeries where he will catch up with his constituents and discuss matters of concern,” a spokesperson said.
They said that he would be making a donation to a hospice and causes supporting dyslexia from his fee, although they have not yet said how much of the rumoured £400,000 will be given to charity.