Backlash against Hancock's jungle foray is predictable when we don't know what MPs really do - Alastair Stewart

Matt Hancock will tonight take a break from his backbench duties as a Member of Parliament to participate in I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!

The former health secretary said he was taking part in the ITV programme's jungle to "go to where the people are - not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster." He declared that his number one priority remains his constituency work.

But is the predictable backlash fair and reasonable?

For starters, you would think Hancock had had his fill of reality TV. His resignation in 2021 after breaching COVID-19 social distancing restrictions for an extramarital affair was painfully embarrassing. The CCTV footage of the MP kissing and embracing his closest aide in his Whitehall office looked like a scrawny, awkward schoolboy necking his first crush at a school dance in a desperate bid to be cool.

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Hancock asserted that appearing on the ITV show was "a great opportunity to talk directly to people who aren't always interested in politics" and that reality TV is an "honest and unfiltered" way to speak with voters.

He has had the Tory whip removed for such pious self-service as he now faces up to 22 days in the jungle, doing his bit for political openness and transparency.

Hancock is neither the first nor last politician to indulge in a reality show. George Galloway, Lembit Opik and Nadine Dorries are perhaps the most famous for feeding off the awesomely painful spectre of reality shows and their celebrity line-ups. Kezia Dugdale also participated, and Penny Mordaunt jumped into the deep end with Splash! in 2014.

But are they so different from politicians who go on quizzes, talk and late-night chat shows to indulge their ego, make their case, or raise their profile?

Former Cabinet minister Matt Hancock has had the Tory whip suspended after it emerged he was entering the jungle for I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire.Former Cabinet minister Matt Hancock has had the Tory whip suspended after it emerged he was entering the jungle for I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire.
Former Cabinet minister Matt Hancock has had the Tory whip suspended after it emerged he was entering the jungle for I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire.

Have I Got News for You has been the playground for politicians for decades. For better or worse, it made Boris Johnson a household name. The late, great Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy appeared nine times and was exceptional each time. Alex Salmond was reputed to be the highest-paid political guest in 2016.

Matt Hancock's salary is £84,144 per annum. If he lasts the entire three weeks of the show, he will have received just under £5,000 in salary despite being absent from the Commons, in addition to a reputed fee of around £400,000.

"People don't like their politicians to be comfortable," declared Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. "They don't like you having expenses; they don't like you being paid, they'd rather you lived in a ****ing cave."

Many people dismiss or despise politicians because they don't know, care, or understand what they do to earn a salary. There are registers of interest, financial declarations, information databases and contact emails, but so little regarding what they do from nine in the morning to whenever they finish. It breeds a chasm of contempt, quickly filled by the idea of a political class living it up.

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Voters are not stupid. They are canny and not so easily swayed as to believe every leaflet through their door at election time. Most detest the implication that the achievements of a government are thus the achievements of one individual.

Most councillors, MPs and MSPs work hard and serve their constituents honourably, but it is challenging to prove it to a media that needs to report results, failures or scandals. It is why a politician's social media channels are an endless series of photo ops and petition signings because that is the only authentic, meaningful and presentable evidence of a day's graft that they can show.

Hancock abandoning his post and going into the jungle is enough to rile people up. Still, it is only part of the story: people don't know what their representatives do half the time, making situations like this twice as bad for politics.

As MPs are not employees, they can spend as much or as little time in Parliament as they like. The House of Commons is due to sit for only 158 days in 2022, but MPs often spend many of their days "off" doing constituency work. There are also no formal guidelines on holidays meaning that Hancock can technically leave to participate in the show.

When you couple that with large salaries, expenses and a presumed absence of activity, the public will take their anger out on whoever sticks their head above the parapet and does something daft.

The problem isn't Hancock sitting in a jungle or swimming with snakes. The issue is that the day-to-day responsibilities of his job are so undefined and mysterious to non-politicos that people assume all politicians do nothing - a sad myth compounded by the 2009 expenses scandal and 'partygate' throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Politics has never been at such a critically low ebb. The perception of indolence ignores the tireless efforts of many elected representatives to do right by their constituents. But Hancock's decision undermines faith in public service and the legitimacy given to our leaders to act in our interests.

If Hancock's jungle sojourn is to have any use, it is to better frame how we measure what we expect from our politicians. No one should expect a daily diary press release, but new key performance indicators might be the radical solution needed to restore a semblance of public confidence - particularly now.

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But that might be something for Matt Hancock to think about on the long, jetlagged round trip to Australia to better serve his constituents in West Suffolk.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant