In 2019, Ross Clark explained in The Spectator why Matt Hancock was likely to be the next prime minister:
“Conservative leadership contests, for all their drama, are pretty easy to read. The winner is almost invariably the credible candidate who, at the time of the election, has succeeded in offending the fewest number of Conservatives.
“He, of all credible candidates, will be able to stand up at hustings and inspire the fewest negative feelings.”
It seems however as though Hancock’s ability to avoid giving offence to fellow Tories has deserted him.
On the announcement that he is to appear in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, the chief whip immediately withdrew the whip from him, meaning that he no longer (for the time being at least) sits as a Tory MP. One fellow Tory backbencher described him as “an absolute prat”, and the deputy chair of his West Suffolk constituency party, Andy Drummond, remarked: “I’m looking forward to him eating a kangaroo’s penis. You can quote me on that.”
Hancock will eat worms in order to publicise dyslexia
Hancock himself claims, somewhat bizarrely, that he agreed to appear in the Australian outback, likely to be semi-clothed and probably eating worms, in order to publicise the problem of dyslexia. He wrote in the Sun:
“I want to use this incredible platform to raise awareness, so no child leaves primary school not knowing if they have dyslexia.”
“This incredible platform” is, so he believes, “where the people gather”. The programme does have high viewing figures, around nine million, but that means it’s only where about one in seven of the people gather. And it is not clear they gather there to learn about dyslexia.
Matt Hancock has never been noticeably popular among the public in his constituency, and it is unclear whether his latest exploit will improve that. The accusation is that he is never seen outside Newmarket. Already a petition demanding that he withdraw from the show has amassed over 25,000 signatures, and another demands a by-election.
Little support among public, officials or media
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice campaign remarked: “Matt Hancock isn’t a ‘celebrity’, he’s the former health secretary who oversaw the UK having one of the highest death tolls in the world from Covid-19 whilst breaking his own lockdown rules.”
Nor is he any more popular with his officials. The former vaccines czar, Dame Kate Bingham, last month accused him of political grandstanding and of “an extraordinary ambush” in front of the cabinet during the height of the Covid pandemic, because responsibility for managing the vaccines roll-out had been taken from him.
He can’t look for any sympathy from journalists either. Those tasked with reporting on his home patch claim to find him arrogant and unwilling to give them time, except when it offers self-promotion. Perhaps he sees his present predicament as self-promotion, but it is likely those journalists will report on his progress with Schadenfreude.
Claims he is looking to appeal to younger voters
There is speculation that perhaps he has given up on politics, and has decided to carve out a new career for himself, perhaps in the media. But this hardly sits conveniently with reports that he had been a serious candidate to take over the prestigious chair of the Commons treasury select committee. Hancock’s own pronouncements on his motivations for taking part in the show hardly support the theory either: he claims he is doing it to appeal to younger voters.
So if he remains politically ambitious, how to explain such a calamitous error of judgement? One of his local party members in West Suffolk has described him as having the hide of a rhinoceros, and thick skin does not suggest a great sensibility for what is deemed acceptable, or the opinions of others.
His ambition is legendary, from when as a young MP he became George Osborne’s willing accomplice. After he lost his mentor he made his own way, though he had to wait for a cabinet place. On one occasion when passed over for promotion he was described by a colleague as being almost in tears.
Boundary changes may leave Hancock without a seat
To make matters worse for him, his West Suffolk seat will cease to exist if proposed boundary changes go ahead. It is due to be split, with Newmarket going into the Bury St Edmunds seat and Haverhill part of a new constituency to included Halstead in Essex. Newmarket is Hancock’s power base, where he is close to members of the Jockey Club, but Bury is the seat of sitting Tory MP Jo Churchill, who was not noticeably supportive during his resignation crisis.
But if he follows Haverhill into the new Halstead seat he may have to contend with sitting Braintree MP and present foreign secretary James Cleverly.
Hancock likes to be seen as influential, as a master of political manoeuvre who can make things happen. This time he has certainly made things happen. It remains to be seen however whether he retains mastery over what happens next.