2 November 2022

From Hancock to Balls – why can’t politicians resist reality TV?


The news that Matt Hancock is to appear on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! raises an old and vital question: why can’t politicians resist the siren call of reality television? The answer is for the same reason as everyone else: narcissism and money. 

Of course, if money was the primary concern, they would not have chosen the footling world of politics. And many donate their fee to charity. Of the two driving motives, then, a hunger for fame is by far the stronger. 

This is hardly surprising – politics attracts people who have a particularly high opinion of themselves. Hence why everyone’s favourite former Health Secretary and born-again crypto-bro will soon be munching on koala scrotum for our amusement. In doing so, he follows in a long line of politicians who have opted for the reality TV route over the tedious world of parliamentary debates and committee sittings. 

A decade ago, Nadine Dorries also appeared on I’m a Celeb. She also lost the Tory whip. Whilst she was the first campmate voted out, she did leverage her appearance into a successful career as a Boris partisan and pot-boiler authoress. 

Penny Mordaunt first drew public attention on the celebrity diving show Splash! and has put it to good use in running her perpetual leadership campaign (even if, like her, it has a habit of belly-flopping). It is to the credit of the current Leader of the House that her career has lasted a bit longer than the show. 

In both cases, the contestants were backbenchers aiming to raise their profile. But what happens when a politician who the public might actually have heard of goes on reality TV? For one thing, it means they don’t need to bother with dingo dollars and diving boards. 

They can get the good gig: Strictly. Not only does the BBC’s glitzy primetime show attract huge audiences, but it is guaranteed to transform you from a political has-been to a national treasure. 

Step forward Ed Balls. After losing his seat in 2015 while serving as the Shadow Chancellor, Balls left the politics to his wife Yvette Cooper and headed straight for the sequins. 

On Strictly, Balls compensated for his natural awkwardness and disconnection from reality – he was a Labour MP, after all – by casting himself as the tubby, ludicrous, execrably poor dancer who the public could laugh at between the good stuff. Whether gangnam-styling or decked out in green paint, Balls erased any memory of his failed political efforts through his entertaining lack of talent. 

It is what the public want. Ann Widdecombe previously turned herself from a figure of terror to one of national affection through her ballroom efforts. Like Balls, she understood that voters want to see their politicians humiliated. 

This is why those who take themselves too seriously – like salmonella and John Major enthusiast Edwina Currie on Strictly, or affable socialist Kezia Dugdale on I’m a Celeb – don’t last long. The eighteenth century had Pope and Gillray to mock their politicians. We have Ant, Dec, and the fresh pickings from a kangaroo’s vasectomy. 

Perhaps Hancock has decided his career in frontline politics is over. In recent weeks he has been both rebuffed by Liz Truss and ignored by Rishi Sunak for both a hug outside CCHQ, and a return to ministerial office. 

But that would show remarkable self-awareness for the Health Secretary who thought he could survive playing tonsil tennis with his aide while asking the rest of us to social distance. I suspect Hancock is not going on I’m a Celeb because he longs to quit the political arena, but because he imagines the next stage of his career demands it. 

But if he thinks the British public, scarred as they are by the horrors of lockdown and that CCTV video, will take him to their hearts, he may have another thing coming. His destiny is surely to be voted to consume every last witchetty grub going, as a way of atoning for his sins.

England expects every fame-hungry politician to do their duty. For Hancock, that will involve a very different sort of balls to those which made such an impression on Strictly.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.