Akuba hats off to Matt Hancock, with corks on. Whichever four letter taunt you prefer, “Prat” seems to be heading the table, he has likely made the right career move for himself, in the circumstances in which he finds himself. 

Hancock has certainly increased his standing as a potential Vicar of Stiffkey style sideshow attraction. I suspect swallowing revolting things in the Australian outback will boost the former cabinet minister’s political career as well, should he choose to pursue it. 

The same commentators sniggered with outrage when Nadine Dorries went into the jungle, nobody foresaw her becoming Culture Secretary with a promise of a seat for life in the House of Lords from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, another as-seen-on-TV celebrity who capered between elected posts in parliament and city hall. 

Ann Widdecombe was just one of John Major’s middle ranking ministers until she danced with notoriety. “Something of the night” slurs on her boss Michael Howard, led to appearances on Celebrity Fit Club, Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Sooty, Have I Got News For You, Antiques Road Show, Crystal Maze, several eponymous TV shows and Panto. Nobody noticed when she stood down as an MP 2010; she continued as a political activist and was elected again as a Member of the European Parliament for the Brexit Party in 2019, although like party leader Nigel Farage, she failed to get back as an MP under those colours. To this day Widdecombe, now aged 75, is invited onto radio and television to comment on the Conservative Party and political matters with something of the right about them. 

“Who said “Politics is showbusiness for ugly people?”, the former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth, no stranger to those waters, once tweeted, “It’s such a great line because it is so cruelly, painfully, and frequently, true.” Credit is often given to Bill Clinton’s advisor Paul Begala although he says he picked it up from popular culture. 

Given the number of celebrities willing to give us the benefit of their opinions the aphorism works the other way round “Show business is politics for beautiful people.” Leaving aside physical attributes – and Hancock is a fairly fit and presentable 44 year old white male – the point is that, whether we like it or not, the two worlds of entertainment and electoral politics are converging on each other. Successful politicians need popular recognition. Those in pursuit of power often have thick skins which equip them well for any indignity while attracting attention to themselves. Those deprecating Hancock, probably do not watch I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. But his critics must accept that public humiliation and self-deprecation have worked for many self-publicists who have preceded him. 

No-one in public life is spared invitations to show another more human side of themselves – including journalists. I have done the celebrity versions of Mastermind, University Challenge and Pointless. My justification is that these programmes are not about the contestants but about what they know. I am not enough of a celebrity to be invited to do the likes of Strictly, I’m a Celebrity, Dancing on Ice, or Who do you think you are? I doubt I would do them anyway on grounds of privacy and shyness. Bolder journalists have enjoyed great success. At the BBC and ITN, John Sergeant always suppressed the side of this character which made him a star of Footlights at Cambridge. Strictly allowed it to blossom so much that John withdrew for fear of winning by popular demand. “It was getting silly”, he explained. The great Michael Burke was frank that he went into the jungle for the money – reportedly £100,000.

Television was a sliding door into showbiz for at least two former Cabinet Ministers Ed Balls and Michael Portillo. Balls still dabbles with politics, currently pontificating in partnership with George Osborne on The Andrew Neil Show – he could yet make a comeback in either House. After hitting the ceiling in his leadership bid, Portillo, another Andrew Neil alumnus, seems content to stick with the cameras and railway journeys. He has a knack for it and told me his psychedelic wardrobe was his idea not his production team’s. 

Matthew Parris is journalism’s greatest gain from politics. The young Tory MP was a reality TV pioneer when he tried to live on dole money for ITV’s World in Action. That led to an invitation to quit politics to take over from ex-MP Brian Walden presenting Weekend World, and from there to his long and distinguished stint as a columnist for The Times. 

The first exclusive on Hancock’s trip to I’m a Celebrity… earned him the front page and an inside double page spread in The Sun. He explained himself in terms calculated to flatter Sun readers: “I think it’s a great opportunity to talk to people who aren’t always interested in politics, even if they care very much about how our country’s run. It’s our job as politicians to go to where the people are – not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster.” There are not many people in the Outback, his “where” is the screen on your television or other smart device. While health secretary Hancock noticed that not everyone tuned into Downing Street’s daily Covid briefings, instead they got their information from “brilliant shows like  This Morning, Loose Women and Gogglebox.”

Hancock’s political allies are not amused by his populist truancy. Andy Drummond, Deputy Chair of his West Sussex constituency association commented: “I’m looking forward to him eating a Kangaroo’s penis. Quote me”. The Conservative Party removed the whip because “the PM believes that at a challenging time for the country MPs should be working hard for their constituents, whether it be in the House or in their constituency.” Even if he wins I’m a Celebrity by surviving for the full series, Hancock will be back just in time for the main debate on his private member’s Dyslexia Screening and Teacher Training Bill, which will get a lot more attention than if he’d stayed working hard on the back benches. Hancock says he is dyslexic and will make a contribution to dyslexia charities from his TV fee, which he says he will disclose in the declaration of members interests. Estimates suggest it could total £350,000. 

Hancock probably needs the money. He lost his cabinet salary after his affair with his Covid rule-breaking affair with his aide Gina Coladangelo was exposed last year. He also left his wife and two children and, presumably, faces an expensive divorce. 

Heading to Number Ten, Sunak snubbed Hancock for a handshake, but his loyalty and the precedent with others suggests he will have the whip restored soon after his return. Unless there is an unlikely revolt against him, he has a safe seat. With a 45% majority Suffolk West is the Conservatives 36th safest constituency. That leaves Hancock at a fork in his road: more politics or more showbiz?

The bereaved are understandably aggrieved that Hancock appears to be “cashing in” on his role during the Coronavirus pandemic. His record is mixed. He claims credit for pushing the successful vaccination programme. He also presided over the fatal decision to move untested patients from NHS hospitals into care homes. Alex Bourne, a friend and former landlord of the Cock Inn in his constituency was awarded a lucrative NHS testing contract. He strained credibility with official figures for the struggling test and trace programme. Dominic Cummings told MP’s Hancock should have been sacked “almost every day” for “lying to everybody”. 

Undaunted, Hancock’s book Pandemic Diaries is being rushed out on 6th December when he’ll be back from Australia. Matt Hancock is a politician/celebrity for our times. His public life will not be cut short by the snakes, creepy crawlies and ingested animal anuses. 

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