By Sam Blewett, David Hughes, Sam Russell and Amy Gibbons, PA
Matt Hancock said he is going to Australia to join I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! so he can “go to where the people are — not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster”.
The former UK health secretary insisted “I haven’t lost my marbles” by deciding to join the reality show after being suspended from the parliamentary Conservative Party.
The West Suffolk MP insisted his “first priority” is to his constituents as he flew over 10,000 miles to join the ITV show, which starts on Sunday.
One Tory MP described Mr Hancock as an “absolute prat” as campaigners for families bereaved in the Covid-19 pandemic accused him of trying to “cash in on his terrible legacy”.
Chief whip Simon Hart said: “Following a conversation with Matt Hancock, I have considered the situation and believe this is a matter serious enough to warrant suspension of the whip with immediate effect.”
In Mr Hancock’s constituency, Andy Drummond, deputy chairman (political) of the West Suffolk Conservative Association, said: “I’m looking forward to him eating a kangaroo’s penis. Quote me. You can quote me on that.”
Ian Houlder, a Conservative councillor on West Suffolk Council, said Mr Hancock has “no shame”.
“Everybody knows what he did during the Covid pandemic and he seems to want to rehabilitate himself all the time in the public eye,” he said.
“He’s got a skin as thick as a rhinoceros, quite frankly.”
Mr Hancock defended his decision in an article for The Sun, arguing it is “a great opportunity to talk directly to people who aren’t always interested in politics”.
He said reality TV is an “honest and unfiltered” way to communicate with voters.
“It’s our job as politicians to go to where the people are — not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster,” Mr Hancock wrote.
“There are many ways to do the job of being an MP. Whether I’m in camp for one day or three weeks, there are very few places people will be able to see a politician as they really are.”
He added: “So, the truth is, I haven’t lost my marbles or had one too many pina coladas. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to.”
Mr Hancock said he wants to use the “incredible platform” to raise awareness of dyslexia.
The fact that he is trying to cash in on his terrible legacy, rather than showing some humility or seeking to reflect on the appalling consequences of his time in Government says it all about the sort of person he is.
— Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK (@CovidJusticeUK) November 1, 2022
He said he turned down the programme “twice this summer” but had a “change of heart” after workers asked a third time last week.
The MP said it was not the money that changed his mind, saying he will make “a donation” to St Nicholas Hospice Care in Suffolk, though he does not say he will give up the full amount.
He said he feels able to go to the jungle now the “Government is stable”.
Mr Hancock said he can be reached on “any urgent constituency matters”.
Meanwhile, he is facing questions over whether he broke rules on seeking permission over jobs taken within two years of leaving office.
Mr Hancock did not seek advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) before agreeing to the appearance, the PA news agency understands.
Lord Pickles, the Conservative chairman of the anti-corruption watchdog, which advises on post-ministerial jobs, is expected to write to Mr Hancock to demand clarification.
Under the rules, Mr Hancock should seek clearance from Acoba for any new employment or appointments he takes on until next June.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said the guidance “was followed in good faith”, adding: “The Acoba website clearly states that it does not regard media appearances as an appointment or employment.”
However, the website only says that “one-off” activities are not applicable, with any “longer-term arrangement” requiring a request to Acoba.
Depending on how he fairs during public votes, Mr Hancock could remain in the jungle for weeks.
In April, Tory MP and former housing minister Esther McVey was found to have broken the rules for failing to seek Acoba’s advice over her “regular engagement” as a GB News presenter.
Conservative backbencher Tim Loughton said Mr Hancock has been an “absolute prat”.
“I’m completely disappointed and disgusted that he’s put his self and a so-called celebrity career ahead of serving his constituents,” he told Times Radio.
The UK prime minister’s official spokesman said it is “unlikely” Rishi Sunak will be watching the programme.
“The PM believes that at a challenging time for the country MPs should be working hard for their constituents whether that is in the House or in their constituency,” the spokesman said.
Mr Hancock was forced to quit as health secretary in June 2021 after breaking coronavirus social distancing rules by having an affair in his ministerial office with aide Gina Coladangelo.
Lobby Akinnola, from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice campaign, said: “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.
“The fact that he is trying to cash in on his terrible legacy, rather than showing some humility or seeking to reflect on the appalling consequences of his time in Government, says it all about the sort of person he is.”
To be fair to Matt Hancock, I’d sooner eat Wallaby anus than be a Tory MP too.
— Andrew Gwynne MP 🇺🇦 (@GwynneMP) November 1, 2022
The House of Commons is in recess from November 10th-14th, but celebrities could spend up to three weeks in the jungle – meaning Mr Hancock would miss significant Commons business, including the Autumn Statement on November 17th, if he remains in the contest.