Scandal-tarred UK MP stirs fresh controversy with reality TV stint

From the political jungle in Westminster to an actual jungle in Australia, Britain's scandal-tarred former health secretary Matt Hancock has courted fresh controversy by participating in a reality TV show.

The 44-year-old Conservative MP has drawn criticism from colleagues within his own ruling party after disappearing from parliament to be in the latest series of "I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!"

The popular ITV show takes a group of household names -- some better known than others -- to a rainforest in Australia, pitting them against the elements and challenges involving snakes and other creepy-crawlies.

Since making his first appearance a week ago, Hancock -- an ever-present public figure during the Covid pandemic who was then forced to step down after breaching social distancing rules -- has been filmed partaking in a series of wincing scenes.

The MP has eaten kangaroo testicles, been sprayed with slime, had to deal with spiders and cockroaches, faced an impressive snake in an attack position, and been stung by a scorpion.

His antics, fairly typical for the reality survival series first launched in 2002, have left sceptical fellow lawmakers back in Britain fuming.

"He should be here with us voting and debating in parliament," Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told Sky News.

- 'Respect' -

The Tories suspended Hancock from the party shortly after he announced his participation in the show, and he will be forced to sit as an independent MP when he returns.

Its head of parliamentary discipline, Chief Whip Simon Hart MP, said the matter was "serious enough to order his suspension with immediate effect".

He is not the first politician to appear on the show. Nadine Dorries was also suspended from the Tories in 2012 for taking part.

However, seven years later, she was able to enter government, serving first as a health minister and then from 2021-2022 as culture secretary in Boris Johnson's government.

But new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has not hidden his displeasure at Hancock.

"It is incumbent on all members of parliament to do the things that earn people's respect and that's serving your constituents really well, making a difference to them in surgeries," he told reporters at the G20 summit in Bali this week.

Mark Garnett, a senior lecturer in politics at Lancaster University in northwest England, said despite losing his status as a Tory MP, there was little else to deter Hancock from entering the jungle.

He resigned from Johnson's government in June last year after being captured on leaked security camera footage at work in a steamy clinch with his advisor and former university friend, Gina Coladangelo.

He subsequently left his wife and their children and had been reportedly angling for a political comeback -- but was entirely overlooked for a ministerial job by Sunak last month.

"He has nothing to lose. It's very unlikely that he would have been a senior politician again. He would never become a minister again," Garnett told AFP.

- 'Bigger worry' -

Hancock has defended his decision to appear on "I'm a Celebrity...", which attracts millions of viewers every night.

He has claimed it is an opportunity to raise awareness for dyslexia -- which he was diagnosed with at 18 -- and a chance to show he is not aloof.

He wanted to "go to where the people are, not to sit in the ivory towers in Westminster," the MP said on the show.

"The honest truth is because there are so few ways in which politicians can show they are human beings."

But some among Britain's Covid-scarred population appear less enthused.

On Tuesday, a plane flew over the show's "jungle" location dragging a 35-metre-long banner bearing the words "Covid bereaved say get out of here!".

"There are serious questions about the way he handled... the pandemic," noted Garnett. "Lots of people think he did bad job as a minister of health which caused unnecessary deaths."

Hancock is reportedly being paid £400,000 ($475,000) for his participation, which lasts barely a month, and if he emerges victorious could expect other lucrative offers to follow.

For Garnett, it is symptomatic of a concerning change in British politics.

"The Matt Hancock story is a small illustration of a much bigger worry," he said.

"People don't go now to politics thinking this is my life, they're now thinking this is a stage in my career and once I've left politics I can make a lot of money."

ctx/jj/phz/pvh