Matt Hancock’s decision to quit as MP has been a long time coming

<span>Photograph: Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

Hours after Rishi Sunak was declared Conservative leader, he arrived at the party’s headquarters in central London, where he was met by a crowd of beaming, cheering supporters.

As he walked up the steps to the door, he stopped to shake hands and hug a waiting line of Tory MPs who had stood by his side throughout the summer leadership contest against Liz Truss and her disastrous early days in office.

There was a hug for John Glen, one of his team at the Treasury and a close ally, and another for Mel Stride, his friend and campaign manager. But he then walked straight past Matt Hancock, his former cabinet colleague, without as much as a glance, before gripping the hand of the then Tory party chair Jake Berry.

The former health secretary, the only Tory MP at the front of the crowd not to be greeted directly, did not stop clapping during what appeared to be a very public snub, but the cameras did catch his briefly crestfallen expression before the grin reappeared.

Was this the moment that Hancock, who had twice backed Sunak to become prime minister, realised that his career in frontline politics was over? Six weeks later, after his foray into reality TV with I’m A Celebrity … he announced that he would be stepping down as an MP at the next election.

His decision, which immediately sparked a row over whether he jumped before he was pushed by his local association, underlined the dramatic decline in political fortunes of a man once regarded in Tory circles as a future leader.

Hancock, who entered parliament in 2010 after working as George Osborne’s chief-of-staff in opposition, quickly rose through the ministerial ranks to the post of culture secretary, where he attracted ridicule and concern after setting up the Matt Hancock MP app, his first attempt at communicating with the public in a different way.

Theresa May promoted him to health secretary in 2018 and Boris Johnson retained him after receiving his endorsement for Tory leader. It was in that role, during the dark days of the Covid pandemic, that he became a household name, and – his allies claim – a lightning rod for public anger over the government’s handling of the crisis.

His time in the job came to a dramatic and very public end in June 2021 after pictures of him embracing his lover Gina Coladangelo in his Whitehall office in breach of government guidelines were splashed across the front page of the Sun newspaper. Despite Johnson accepting his initial apology, he quit the next day and told his wife of 15 years their marriage was over.

Hancock has since been focused on rehabilitation. As news of his decision to go on I’m A Celebrity … broke last month, the West Suffolk MP was already halfway round the globe on his way to the Australian jungle.

Sunak said how disappointed he was that Hancock had decided to be away from his constituents and stripped him of the Tory whip, but the MP’s spokesman defended the move, saying he would use the platform to talk about dyslexia and other issues he cared about to millions of people.

One friend and political colleague of Hancock in Suffolk said they believed he had decided to enter the show as an attempt to escape the public perception of him shaped by Covid, describing him as “being an outlet for their anger and their grief”.

They added: “The abuse he was getting was so dreadful, I suspect he thought: it’s time to do something. I was really worried when the programme started. It could have broken him. But over time, I could see the abuse just get less and less.”

As he arrived in the jungle, Hancock appeared to acknowledge that his career in frontline politics was over, telling his campmates that “survival in the jungle is a good metaphor for the world I work in”. He said he wanted to “show what I am like as a person”, before adding that he did not expect to work in government again.

Despite the public vitriol directed at him, he came third in the celebrity contest behind the footballer Jill Scott and the Hollyoaks star Owen Warner. He attracted some criticism, however, for only managing to mention dyslexia twice during his three-week stint.

On his return to Westminster, one source close to Hancock said he intended to stay in politics, but there were questions over whether he would be able to stand as a Tory at the next general election when he was currently an independent MP, meaning he was unable to confirm he would stay on by the 5 December deadline.

Hancock is just one of a handful of MPs – including his successor as health secretary, Sajid Javid – who have decided they will stand down, indicating that they may have seen the writing on the wall for Sunak’s government at the next general election, expected to be in autumn 2024.

As he reflects on what to do next, Hancock now has a more positive public profile – although that could all change with the official Covid inquiry – and a substantial amount of cash in the bank after he was reported to have been paid £400,000 to appear on the ITV show. Friends say he has no plans to do any more reality shows.

One ally said: “There are lots of irons in the fire, but Matt will now look to use his public profile to highlight the serious issues he cares about – such as dyslexia. While Matt’s time in the jungle was a success, he won’t be doing any more reality TV.”

Hancock remains as an MP until the next election, so his time at Westminster is not yet over, but even the announcement of his departure appears to have given him a new sense of liberation.

After announcing on Wednesday that he planned to step down, he posted a video to his 116,000 TikTok followers of him singing the Queen song I Want To Break Free to his I’m a Celeb campmates. Fellow contestant Seann Walsh, a comedian, tells the camera: “I think Matt is trying to tell us something. Be free, Matt.” At the bottom of Hancock’s video are the words “mission accomplished”.