Deprived of the Conservative Party whip, facing calls for deselection by his local association, being urged to forego his MP’s salary for a fortnight and publicly referred to as an “absolute prat” by his colleague and my friend Tim Loughton MP (the man who led the ‘Leadsom for Leader’ march on Westminster). This and more is what has greeted former health secretary Matt Hancock after it emerged that he had flown to Brisbane on Sunday to take part in this year’s series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
When we learned about this in Cratus HQ I was asked if I could write an article on the subject of ‘where have all the serious politicians gone?’. My answer? I don’t think I can. Not because I think Hancock’s choice to step foot into the jungle is the action of a politician who deserves to be taken seriously. No – I’m very much in the Loughton camp on this one. Hancock is making an absolute prat of himself. The reason I can’t write that article is because I don’t think there is anything novel in what he is doing.
While this form of reality television is still relatively new in comparison to the millennia old history of politics and politicians, the urge for a minority of politicians to act in an absurd manner is, regrettably as old as politics itself.
The worlds of celebrity and politics very often intertwine. The move from celebrity to politician or celebrity to campaigner is a common one. It’s been well trodden by the likes of Ronald Reagan, Glenda Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, most notoriously, Donald Trump. The current President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, let us not forget made the switch from comedian to politician while his ally, the Mayor of Kiev Vitaly Klitschko, was formerly the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Every democracy has an example of its own. Celebrity campaigners from Bob Geldof and Esther Rantzen to Joanna Lumley and Marcus Rashford are just four of many who have used their celebrity status to argue for positive change in public policy. It’s not difficult to see why politicians would seek to gain some of that celebrity themselves to further their careers or promote the policy areas that they wish to progress.
But that is very different to what Matt Hancock is doing. This route, a career politician participating in a reality TV doesn’t lead to politicians being taken seriously. On the contrary the joke, even if they go sporting along with it, is firmly on them. The list of those who have tried it is long. Edwina Curry, Ann Widdicombe, Ed Balls and Jacqui Smith have all taken a turn on the Strictly ballroom. Nadine Dorries, Edwina Curry (again) and Lembit Opik have all preceded Hancock in the jungle. Alan Johnson, Oona King, George Galloway and Michael Fabricant have all turned their hands to some form or other of reality TV. A quick google search tells me that Jeremy Corbyn took part in an episode of Celebrity Gogglebox in aid of charity. In most cases the appearances were fun and carried off without significant embarrassment. However, they were not followed by an upturn in their political careers. Although in fairness it should be said that most of these names had probably decided that their political careers were behind them anyway. The exception to the rule (indeed the exception to many rules) was Boris Johnson, who came to wider public attention after some comedic performances of buffoonery guest hosting ‘Have I Got News For You’.
What’s new is not the urge for politicians to make absolute prats of themselves. What is new is the reality TV format. Prior to its invention politicians would make still make fools of themselves appearing on television. Margaret Thatcher was one of the most serious politicians we’ve had in modern times, often too serious for her own good, but even she couldn’t resist the invitation to appear on the children’s television show ‘Saturday Superstore’ with John Craven. The result was cringemaking. She wasn’t the only one to make the mistake.
Throughout history there have been politicians who have been drawn, like a moth to a flame, to acting in ways that serve to do little more than reduce them to the status of ‘absolute prat’. Prior to the advent of television, politicians would often fall at the feet of the rich and famous with disastrous results. Instances like the Marconi scandal and the honours scandal of 1922 (both involving David Lloyd George) were both examples of politicians who should have known better making fools of themselves for material gain.
The senators and consuls of the Roman Empire are notorious in history for their hedonistic and decadent ways. Who can’t imagine a twenty first century Caligula jumping at the chance to be locked away with scantily clad celebrities in the jungle or Prime Minister Nero taking his lyre onto Britain’s Got Talent while he should be attending to putting out metaphorical government fires.
So no, Matt Hancock choosing to make an arse of himself eating kangaroo testicles on national television isn’t a sign that there are no more serious politicians left. It was always thus. The majority of politicians whether in parliament or council chambers around the country are serious people working for the betterment of us all to the best of their ability, while a minority of ‘absolute prats’ cast a dim shadow over them all.
The issue of real concern here is that, like Nadine Dorries before him, Hancock should be at work in Parliament. Not on the other side of the planet. Whatever his rationale it’s only right that an MP who absconds while Parliament is sitting, whether to appear on television or soak up the Caribbean sun, is never taken seriously as a politician again.