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Matt Hancock, I’m A Celeb, and the BeRealification of politics

We don’t need to see the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ side of our politicians – we just need them to do their jobs

Last week, clad in a red fleece gilet and explorer hat, a certain former health secretary touched down in the Australian jungle, primed and ready to sink his teeth into a kangaroo’s penis. His entrance, naturally, has sparked debate. What about his constituents? Doesn’t he have work to do at home, in West Suffolk? How much is he getting paid? Is it right that ITV is facilitating the rehabilitation of a man whose actions have harmed thousands of people? And is a politician really a celebrity?

“It’s our job as politicians to go to where the people are – not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster,” Matt Hancock wrote in The Sun prior to jetting off to participate in ITV’s I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! (I might have suggested that he could have done this by spending some more time in his constituency, but never mind). “Like you, politicians are human, with hopes and fears, and normal emotions just like everyone else.”

He stuck doggedly to this line once in the jungle, too. When Scarlette Douglas, the host of Channel 4’s A Place in the Sun, asked him why he’d decided to come in, Hancock said he wanted to show that he was “human”. Later, Loose Woman Charlene White grilled him on his reasons for doing the programme, and again Matt reiterated that it was all about showing the British public the “real him”.

Some people have been sceptical about this reasoning and it’s not escaped the public’s notice that Hancock is being paid nearly half a million pounds to eat a few witchetty grubs. You’d be naïve to think the hefty fee didn’t at least influence him a little bit – but I do actually believe Hancock when he attests that he’s there to show people “the human side of the man behind the podium” too.

In an apparent reaction against the ‘artifice’ of social media, in recent years, ‘authenticity’ has become a virtue prized above all others. It’s why BeReal, the social media app du jour, has now been downloaded 53 million times and is worth $600 million. It’s why people on dating apps rail against ‘beige flags’, AKA warning signs that a date is withholding their ‘real’, zany self on their dating profile in favour of playing it safe by expressing milquetoast opinions (like hating pineapple on pizza or saying you love dogs). It’s why, on Love Island this past summer, Davide’s branding of Ekin-Su as a “liar, actress” was so cutting – as being fake, especially on reality TV, is a cardinal sin.

Of course, as has been said countless times before, the pursuit of true authenticity is both pointless and impossible. Most of us have slightly different versions of ourselves and would behave slightly differently around friends, family, or colleagues, for example. We might pick a crisp new shirt over a sweatshirt stained with ketchup when we decide what to wear in the morning. We decide how much to divulge when someone asks “what did you do at the weekend”, filtering out the minutiae and focusing on the highlights. And obviously, none of this makes a person disingenuous or inauthentic.

What does any of this have to do with Matt Hancock? Well, as evidenced by his insistence that he’s there to reveal himself, “warts and all”, this incessant desire for authenticity has now permeated politics. Hancock isn’t the only one who has vied to show his true colours in the past few years, either. Remember when Boris Johnson brought tea to journalists waiting outside his home, exhibiting a mismatched assortment of mugs, including one from a Mini Eggs Easter egg? Or when Rishi Sunak tried to fill up a car and buy a Coke at a petrol station? (It later came to light that the car was borrowed from a Sainsbury’s employee and Rishi – who is the wealthiest PM in history – struggled to get to grips with using a contactless card).

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Granted, the whole ‘man of the people’ idea dates back to Plato, and plenty of politicians have tried to win the public over through ‘relatability’ – Margaret Thatcher famously made much of the fact that she was a “grocer’s daughter”. But since the advent of reality TV and social media, the boundaries between public and private have almost totally collapsed, leaving the public wanting more access to the personal lives of their politicians.

We need to take some responsibility for getting to this stage, too, where sitting MPs are going on reality TV. Theresa May was lambasted for saying the “naughtiest thing” she’d ever done was “run through fields of wheat”, and while this was an extraordinarily weird thing to say, if we had learnt that she once took a pill she found in the Corsica Studios toilets, this would have told us nothing concrete about her policies. (It’s important that journalists also stop asking pointless questions like these.) Maybe we’re expecting too much from our politicians – we want them to be serious but charismatic, clever but unpretentious, firm but fair. And while we can and should expect them to be effective leaders, we can’t expect them to be funny and fallible and relatable leaders too.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping your personal life private – and Hancock, of all people, should know this. We’ve already been subjected to watching that video of him slobbering over his aide (and now girlfriend), his hands meandering from her waist to her arse in the most sexless way imaginable. Living up to his promise to be ‘real’, he’s even broached the subject of the scandal with fellow campmate Babatúndé Aléshé. “I fell in love,” he said to the Gogglebox star, in a bid to explain his adultery as frankly as possible.

But the problem was never Matt Hancock cheating on his wife. That sucked for Mrs Hancock, I guess, but wasn’t a problem for the rest of us. Instead, the issue was that we were in the middle of a pandemic and he was meant to be the Health Secretary guiding us through the chaos. “You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble,” was the Hancock-approved guidance in place on May 6, the day that he was caught rubbing himself against Gina Coladangelo like a dog in heat.

Matt could empty the dunny 20 times; he could eat blended mealworms without grudge or grumble; he could win infinite stars. He could come across as a ‘nice guy’ and ‘sound’. He could be the kindest, most resilient, most selfless campmate of all time, and it still wouldn’t change the fact that over 30,000 people died after he allowed untested hospital patients to be discharged into care homes at the start of the pandemic. It wouldn’t change the fact that he was responsible for the PPE shortage. It wouldn’t change the fact that he awarded lucrative COVID-19 contracts to his friends. It wouldn’t change the fact that, now, he has abandoned his constituents during a cost of living crisis. Because if what he’s like doesn’t align with what he does, what good is that for the people who have to live with the consequences of his actions?

I don’t really care about the “guy behind the podium”. I care about how well Hancock and other politicians can do their jobs – which, in theory, is meant to be serving the public and looking after society’s most vulnerable. Leave the personality stuff to the actors, the comedians, the radio hosts – they’re the ones who are in the limelight to entertain us. Not politicians. They aren’t celebrities.