Matt Hancock touches down in Brisbane as he defends I'm a Celebrity appearance

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports on the reaction to the former health secretary's switch from Westminster to the jungle

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has defended his decision to appear on this year's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! after coming under fire for "abandoning" his constituents.

The former health secretary has been stripped of the Tory whip after signing up to join the star-studded cast in the Australian jungle.

Mr Hancock was a surprise extra name added to the list of contenders, whose apparent role in the hit ITV show is yet to be officially confirmed.

The MP was pictured touching down at Brisbane Airport on Tuesday.

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Travelling to the jungle in Australia will mean he is away from Parliament - and matters involving his constituents in West Suffolk - for up to three weeks.

But writing in The Sun on Tuesday evening, Mr Hancock defended his decision following a day of criticism and said he would use his appearance to promote his work on dyslexia.

Mr Hancock said he will be permitted to speak with staff at his constituency while in the jungle if urgent matters arise, and that he will hold a surgery with his constituents as soon as his time on the show is over.

He said the chance to go into the jungle was a "great opportunity" and would allow him to "talk directly to people who aren’t always interested in politics".

"It’s as clear as day that politicians like me must go to where the people are - particularly those who are politically disengaged. We must wake up and embrace popular culture," he wrote.

Mr Hancock also revealed that he will make a donation to St Nicholas Hospice in Suffolk with his appearance fee and declare the amount he receives from the show to Parliament.

However, campaigners for families bereaved in the Covid pandemic have accused him of trying to “cash in on his terrible legacy”.

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,” Mr Houlder said.

“He’s got a skin as thick as a rhinoceros, quite frankly.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper told ITV News he does not support Mr Hancock's decision.

He said: "The government chief whip - and that’s a job I’ve held in the past - has made it clear that being away from Parliament when it’s sitting to do this celebrity programme is not something that a Conservative member of parliament should do and that’s why he’s taken the whip away from Mr Hancock.

"And I’m fully in support of that decision."

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock 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.

Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch defended Mr Hancock and said "we should let Matt be Matt" as she "wished him all the very best".

"I'm sure he feels there are very good reasons that he can do this that will help West Suffolk," she told ITV News.

Pressed on the reaction from bereaved Covid families, Ms Badenoch said: "I think it's wrong for us to get into what bereaved families may or may not be saying, given that the event of the pandemic, we all know there's going to be an inquiry."

She said Mr Hancock worked "very hard" as health secretary and believes "people will remember him for" supporting the NHS during the pandemic and delivering the Covid vaccine.

Andy Drummond, deputy chairman of the West Suffolk Conservative Association, earlier said: “I’m looking forward to him eating a kangaroo’s penis. Quote me. You can quote me on that.”

The sentiment was somewhat echoed by Stanley Johnson - the father of former prime minister Boris Johnson who competed in the 17th series of the ITV show - and told Mr Hancock not to "miss his chance to eat a bull's testicle".

Imparting wisdom on the latest politician to enter the jungle, Mr Johnson - who lasted 18 days on his own stint - told ITV News: "Get your hand up quick - Ant or Dec, I was never able to distinguish between them - they come in and… you’ve got to get your hand up because if you don’t, you miss the chance to eat a bull’s testicle for example."

"Go for it, frankly it's just food, it’s calories and its totally edible," he added.

But Tory MP Tim Loughton was less impressed and said Mr Hancock had 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 prime minister’s official spokesman said it was “unlikely” Rishi Sunak would 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.

The response at Westminster was swift after news that West Suffolk MP Mr Hancock would join the ITV show, which starts on Sunday.

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.”

Mr Hancock was forced to quit as health secretary in June 2021 after breaking Covid social distancing rules by conducting an affair in his ministerial office with aide Gina Coladangelo.

Matt Hancock resigned from government after having an affair with his aide Gina Colangelo while household mixing was banned.

Mr Hancock was among supporters of Mr Sunak who welcomed the new leader to Conservative headquarters last week. However, he was overlooked for a ministerial job under the new prime minister.

He had also reportedly been considering a run to be chair of the Treasury Select Committee, but pulled out of the race on Monday.

An ally of Mr Hancock said "there are many ways to do the job of being an MP" and television is "a powerful tool to get our message heard by younger generations.”

“Whether he’s 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," they said.

“Where better to show the human side of those who make these decisions than with the most watched programme on TV?

“Politicians like Matt must go to where the people are - particularly those who are politically disengaged."

Matt Hancock, alongside other members of the Conservative Party, waits outside the party headquarters for the arrival of Rishi Sunak Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

Mr Hancock said he turned down the offer to take part twice this summer because of the political chaos at Westminster, but since Mr Sunak became prime minister the former health secretary believes “the government is stable”.

However, his decision to enter the jungle drew criticism from political opponents, union chiefs and campaigners.

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.”

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SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “It speaks volumes that Matt Hancock would rather be stranded in a remote jungle eating kangaroo testicles than spend a moment longer on the Tory benches at Westminster, as Rishi Sunak’s government lurches from one crisis to another.”

Shadow Health Minister Andrew Gwynne said: “To be fair to Matt Hancock, I’d sooner eat wallaby anus than be a Tory MP too.”

The House of Commons is in recess from November 10-14, 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 17 if he remains in the contest.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior civil servants, said: “Oh to have a job where you can decide for yourself you’re taking a month off, abandon your work and responsibilities, get paid shedloads and face little consequence.

“I’m sure he’ll be an inspiration to other public servants.”