Opinion: The Journey From Political Pariah to a Jungle King; Has Britain Forgiven Matt Hancock?

Nobody who lived through the coronavirus pandemic in the UK will ever forget Matt Hancock. Nor will they forget his downfall. We can all remember that every newspaper front page was plastered with the headline ‘Hancock affair with aide‘. Simultaneously, the photo of him and Gina Colangelo embracing – at a time where his department’s COVID rules essentially prohibited it – quickly circulated. As a result of this, things rapidly turned sour for Hancock. Alongside the shameful COVID death rate under his watch and the failure to protect care homes, the issue of his infidelity became a public health debate, and he was forced to resign. Many assumed that this was the end of the road for Hancock, with him forever being consigned to the history books as the Covid Health Secretary who broke his own rules. 

Or so we thought, until it was announced that he was forming part of the 2022 ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!’ line-up. Responses to Hancock’s entrance into the world of reality TV were unsurprisingly mixed. Some thought he would be the first voted out, others revelled in the opportunity to watch him suffer through trials, whilst many felt it was extremely inappropriate. OFCOM received over 1,700 complaints over his casting, and a plane organised by activists from the COVID Bereaved Families For Justice organisation flew over the jungle “telling Hancock in no uncertain terms to ‘get out of here’”. For many, Hancock embodies all the pain from the pandemic, so it was not clear how this venture was going to pan out. In the world of politics it appears to have been suicidal. He was stripped of the Conservative Party whip- now making him an independent MP- and abandoning the needs of his constituents for a reality show has done nothing to curry favour with them. Also, many are uncomfortable with the idea that a rich public servant who gained notoriety due to his deception and hypocrisy should receive £400,000 to entertain us on the television. Hancock claims that he was taking part to raise awareness for his dyslexia campaign, but it is obvious that he was looking for a redemption arc. Despite this, it was debated whether it would work, or if he deserved the chance. 

Now, in the aftermath of the show, it is fair to say that Hancock HQ have exceeded expectations with their PR campaign. He survived eight eliminations and came third, beating celebrities like former rugby union player Mike Tindall and pop icon Boy George. Also, compared to other contestants, he has built a significant following on social media sites like TikTok, and clips which featured Hancock were often circulating on social media. The exposure that he has received is enviable, and the show’s design facilitated him revealing a more human side. He was filmed speaking about childhood struggles and his and Colangelo’s love story, things that will have garnered sympathy but that he otherwise would not have been able to share. His attempt to humanise his public persona and provide explanation for his mistakes seems to have worked, explaining why such a disliked figure succeeded in the show. It is likely that at least some Britons have forgiven Hancock, or at least that the public discourse surrounding him has softened slightly, given his third-place title. If the same vitriol that was targeted towards him in summer 2021 remained now, he would not have lasted any length. 

It has been suggested that maybe Hancock’s achievement in the jungle is more to do with viewers ‘hate-voting’, rather than public opinion changing. This definitely played a part, as the longer a contestant stays in, the more stomach-churning challenges they have to suffer. Given how much the British public like seeing politicians embarrass themselves, there was probably great appetite to witness Hancock eat cow anus. However, the motivations for why the public sent Hancock to the final are not as relevant as the effect of his time in Australia. Just because he may have stayed in so we can continue to be entertained by his suffering, does not necessarily mean people have forgotten about the past. We are still talking about Matt Hancock, but the nature of the discourse has shifted. Instead of discussing government hypocrisy, the public are now talking about how well he can eat a kangaroo tail. 

It goes without saying that some people will never- and should never- be able to forgive Matt Hancock. Thousands of families were robbed of the opportunity to spend last moments with their dying loved ones, due to them following Hancock’s pandemic rules. It is unforgivable that he clearly did not hold himself to the same standards that he applied to us. However, the public’s attention span is painfully short, and it would be naive to think that his television appearance has not helped him to begin to rebuild his reputation. For many, the pandemic era seems a distant memory, which has provided Hancock with the perfect opportunity for a fresh start. 

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