“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.”