FORMER UK health secretary Matt Hancock has sparked a storm by becoming the latest in a long line of politicians to swap Westminster for a stint on reality TV.

It’s a blurring of lines between celebrity and politicians, which stretches back to 1960 when a debate between US presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy was televised for the first time, marking the beginning of the era of image playing an increasing role in the life of politicians.

Now it’s common for names associated with the corridors of power to be seen eating kangaroo testicles, donning sequins for dance-offs and swimsuits for sporting challenges.

However, Bethany Klein, professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds, said Hancock’s appearance on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, which begins tonight, is more unusual as it involves someone who was recently in a major government position.

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“If you count reality TV as the kind of factual entertainment television that started in the late 1990s, around 2000, then there has always been the occasional politician that has appeared on it,” she said.

“Sometimes there are people who are early on in their political careers, so it is a way to gain visibility – or sometimes they are quite eccentric figures. They have always been there, but this one is slightly different from your typical political presence.”

The list of politicians who have ventured into the jungle for the ITV show includes former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, former MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk, former Tory minister Edwina Currie and MP Nadine Dorries.

There’s been a variety of appearances on other shows, including current leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt on the diving show Splash!, former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing and ex-Labour MP Oona King on Dancing on Ice.

Former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls became a crowd favourite when he appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, but for those looking to boost their profile, it’s a big risk.

The infamous scene of former Labour and Respect Party MP George Galloway purring like a cat on Celebrity Big Brother and licking cream from a fellow contestant’s hands has haunted him – and everyone who has seen it – ever since.

Aside from increasing their profile, there’s also the fee involved – Dugdale admitted last week that cash was the motivating factor for her appearance as she faced funding a legal case.

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Reports have suggested Hancock will receive a hefty £400,000, which will perhaps cushion the blow of having the whip promptly removed after his participation was announced.

It has also been suggested Hancock – who quit as health secretary in June 2021 after footage emerged showing him kissing a colleague in breach of social distancing guidance – knows he is unlikely to become a minister again. It has been suggested he is doing the show to “go where the people are”, particularly younger generations who are “politically disengaged”.

Klein said while there was an issue about engaging people in politics, this approach was “outdated” with younger audiences unlikely to be tuning in.

“I don’t think the solution is to send politicians occasionally on reality TV shows,” she said. “The solution should be for mainstream politicians to think ‘well what is that is excluding people from participation in formal politics and how can we make the barriers to entry lower’ – not ‘let’s go on Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity as another way to get our messages out’.

“Maybe he is genuine in his belief that is what he is doing. I’m a bit sceptical.”

With Hancock also signing for Channel 4 show Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, it seems likely he has an eye on a career outside politics.

Klein said: “I suspect that Matt Hancock is going to be doing a lot of Bushtucker Trials – how he deals with that may affect how people feel about him. Presumably he has consulted with PRs who think this is a good idea, but I would be very surprised if he thinks this is about improving his future political prospects.

“My sense is this is more about moving into the next stage of his career and wanting to be a more likeable, in-demand public figure than he might currently be.”

But she added: “I think it is very, very difficult to predict what your experience is going to be like, and what the consequences of participation are going to be like.

“I think that is as true for a politician going on as it is for ordinary people who go on.”

There's also been those who have made the transition from reality shows to politics – most famously, Donald Trump, whose hosting of The Apprentice in the US helped raise his profile on the way to the White House.

Klein said another interesting aspect was the “ordinary” people on reality shows who use the time to argue their political views.

She pointed to the example of Deirdre Kelly, also known as “White Dee” who, after appearing on Channel 4’s Benefits Street, took part in discussions on claiming benefits and was invited to speak at the Conservative Party conference in 2014.

However, Klein pointed to people being surprised that Kelly was politically astute, as any suggestions that she enter formal politics were always treated in a jokey way.

“How odd is it that we treat it as abnormal the idea that somebody ordinary could be a representative for us in a democracy, which is, of course, the way it is meant to be,” she said.

“But we have gone so far down this road of expecting politicians to have gone to Eton, have degrees etc – that the idea of an ordinary person like White Dee from Benefits Street going into politics is always just mentioned in a semi-joking way.”

The makers of I’m A Celebrity have no doubt been delighted by the publicity surrounding Hancock’s appearance on the show in anticipation of a large boost to viewing figures.

Klein said it was likely to get people watching. However, she added: “Whether they stay watching, we will have to see – I guess it depends on how he comes across.

“I think a lot of people are going to want to see him tortured.”