A month is a long time in politics, especially when you start it hoping to be a government minister and finish it with a frog perched on your head.
At the end of October, Matt Hancock was waiting outside Conservative party HQ to offer congratulations to Rishi Sunak, only to be ignored by the the newly anointed prime minister. Footage of the moment went viral, with the former health secretary mocked for looking like the archetypal grasping politician, desperate to stage a comeback at any cost after resigning for a breach of his own lockdown rules.
Hancock, rejected by the political party to which he has dedicated his life, responded in the traditional way for any public figure with a tarnished reputation undergoing a mid-life crisis. As per the uncodified British constitution, this involved signing up to eat cow anus on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!
He was criticised by the families of the Covid deceased for appearing on the show, lost the Tory whip for flying to Australia while the House of Commons was still sitting, and formally reprimanded by the parliamentary authorities for failing to clear his appearance in advance. Yet he now has the sort of strange fame and name recognition that few MPs can compete with – and faces a very different second half of his career.
Voting statistics released by ITV on Monday show how Hancock’s decision to join the show – driven by a supposed desire to promote dyslexia to a wider audience and a reported £400,000 fee – paid off. In the final he won 22% of the public vote.
While ITV does not reveal how many members of the public take part in I’m a Celebrity’s polls, the number of people who voted for Hancock is likely to be substantially higher than the number of people who voted in this summer’s Tory leadership election.
Hundreds of thousands of Britons apparently repeatedly spent 50p on a premium rate phone line or sent text messages to express their support for Hancock.
A peak audience of 11.5 million viewers watched Sunday night’s final, where the MP wore a snorkel before being submerged in water, covered in eels, and left with an amphibian on his head.
While the vote results reveal Hancock was never in with a chance of beating the former England footballer Jill Scott to win the competition, making the final was a triumph in itself for a man predicted to be first out of the jungle.
It’s possible that the mundanity of a middle-aged over-enthusiastic man begging for forgiveness and being open about his neediness helped sway the votes. Friendly editing that portrayed him favourably compared with the likes of Boy George and Chris Moyles also helped.
Tony Blair’s Downing Street operation used to pursue a “masochism strategy” when they were faced with negative press coverage, sending out the Labour prime minister to be publicly berated on TV in the hope he could still earn respect for taking verbal beatings. Two decades later, the same tactic can still work, although this time it involves a lot more public displays of emotion and consumption of offal.
“I messed up and I fessed up,” said Hancock early in the show, telling other contestants about his lockdown breach where he was caught on his office CCTV camera embracing his then-aide Gina Coladangelo.
Once again I’m a Celebrity… continues to attract live television ratings that are almost unheard of outside major sporting events, Strictly Come Dancing, and the occasional big-budget drama such as Line of Duty.
In an age of fragmented media it is one of the few places to make your pitch to the nation at large, with a sixth of the population tuning in and many more consuming the show via viral clips, stories on sites such as MailOnline, or word-of-mouth discussion.
Hancock’s appearance helped push the show to its highest viewing figures in years. Whether or not he stands at the next general election may not even be his choice – his local Tory constituency association was fuming at his decision to join the show – but, like Ed Balls or Michael Portillo, he might make the transition from politics to light entertainment TV fixture.
Book deals, guest presenter slots, and chatshow appearances are on the cards as part of his attempt at a public rehabilitation. As Hancock himself described his political fall from grace: “I resigned and it’s no excuse. But I fell in love, right? That also had a lot of other consequences, obviously.”