Matt Hancock walked into I’m a Ugly Celebrity and came out washed up in the jungle. No wonder politicians love TV | Zoe Williams

AWhen the celebs really got out of there (and hats off to Jill Scott—I said she should win), a new phrase was born: jungle washing. It’s when you enter the I’m a Celebrity jungle… as an all-round scorned politician and come out just a regular guy trying his best. Mechanism is opaque: Matt Hancock did nothing special. He is neither altruistic nor scheming, tough or mean; you couldn’t pin anything resembling a personality on him. And yet, viewers saw a person there, and he finished in the top three.

The whole premise of his presence on the show was that it would be a chance for a little revenge: for everything that could have gone better during the pandemic; for each excess death and PPE contract taken; for every hypocrisy; damn, for the rampant destructiveness of the past 12 years. Hancock’s soft, rosy face waited there like a board of darts, but the darts never came.

There are competing explanations for all of this. The two strongest are “shy tory” and “counter-suggestive correctness.” The coy Tory assumption is that viewers are essentially just voters in the off-election season: we all say we hate the Tories, but only some of us mean it. To maintain my faith in humanity, I prefer the second theory, which is that as exciting as it is to be part of a ruling mob, no one wants to be prepared for it: we don’t mock command. The more obvious the need for spite, the more we access our fairer sides. What if this villain is just an average Joe? It only takes a flicker of doubt for the energy of hatred to dissipate.

“Washing the Jungle” isn’t the whole story, though: any politician who appears in anything turns into a character that’s harder to categorize, harder to despise. Strictly Come Dancing’s Ann Widdecombe was a tricky show, this authoritative miniature, losing all authority as she bawled. It was obviously ludicrous, yet when the ludicrous bordered on cruelty, a natural sympathy from the audience took place, to protect not Widdecombe, but the viewer’s own self-image: no one wants to think of themselves as a bully. The more aggressive a politician becomes, the more we decline the offer, accessing a softer, more forgiving side instead. So Widdecombe entered Strictly as an eccentrically cruel figure – anti-abortion, pro-death penalty – and exited as a bad aunt. Her views had not changed.

The most damaging TV rehabilitation was, of course, that of Boris Johnson in ‘Have I Got News For You’ – just endless humility over the years, his place in public life defined not by his political position (which it was never a fixed point) nor by his administrative competence (which was not even in play) but by this shaky, beatable exterior. He was the man who could laugh at himself, as he laughed at everything. And let’s be real: Aren’t people nicer to do that? Wouldn’t it be better if all politicians could laugh their way to power? Well, not really, it turns out. It is better to be governed by people who care about others and take their job responsibilities quite seriously. It’s extremely depressing, now, to see the rest of the group going after Johnson in their giddy, giggling way: there was no slate so dirty it couldn’t be wiped clean with a joke. This show was like an Etch-a-Sketch for his reputation.

A funny guy turning on prime time TV should be viewed as a conflict of interest and declared in some sort of registry. Then at least we could compare and contrast the charming, no-nonsense character on screen with the person in real life whose decisions are deeply consequential and often not charming in any way. Otherwise—and I think it would fail, since it’s hard to think two conflicting things about someone at the same time—keep these guys off television. Or narrow them down to Question Time, which never left anyone feeling warm about anything.

Zoe Williams is a columnist at the Guardian

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