THERE are many more degrading things you can do in life than appear on reality television eating grubs.
But as MPs searched for words to condemn Nadine Dorries's involvement in ITV's I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here!, "demeaning" seemed the most popular choice. Others appeared desperate to bolster the image of the political profession. On BBC1's Question Time, Labour MP Chuka Umunna described their work as "sacred". All seemed to agree that Dorries's immediate suspension by the Conservative chief whip and the current inquiry into whether her behaviour violates the MPs' code of conduct were justified.
They may be right. Dorries hadn't bothered to tell significant people, including the Chief Whip and her Mid Bedfordshire constituency office, where she was going or exactly what she was doing. Few people could expect to keep their job after moonlighting for a month on the other side of the planet, so why should Dorries? But what is most troubling about the chorus of disapproval from politicians is that many are less bothered by the fact that she skived than that her appearance on this grubby reality show might cast all MPs in a trashy light, as a bit common and publicity-seeking as well as undignified and flabby.
Former Tory MP Louise Mensch – who has appeared on Have I Got News For You – scoffed at the idea Dorries's absence from her constituency was the real issue. "It isn't quite that simple," she said. "Gordon Brown is rarely in the Commons, yet he does not get lambasted for it (much). More to the point is the demeaning of the role of an MP."
This says a lot about the cloud of denial on which most politicians are floating. The quiet, surreptitious bit of work on the side is permissible (reportedly, 18 MPs each made more than £100,000 last year in outside earnings), but appearing on reality television is crass.
Meanwhile, there is something slightly triumphalist in the way Dorries has been treated. Writing earlier this week, blogger and columnist Damian Thompson noted that the party leadership had been far slower in dealing with Andrew Mitchell's alleged "pleb" attack on the police than with Dorries. "Nice one, Dave," he wrote. "You try to save the career of the odious snob Mitchell, but come down like a ton of bricks on a working-class woman who embarrasses you. If Dorries defects to UKIP, who can blame her?"
Of course, Dorries has been a twit. How many constituents would vote for an MP who jets off without so much as a by-your-leave, collecting up to £40,000 and a tropical tan along the way, when she should be working for them? Though who knows; perhaps if Dorries provides enough entertainment, she could end up as Britain's best-loved UKIP MP. There is still the possibility that in her first television appearance tonight, she may connect with people.
Indeed, there is a real danger that those po-faced, disapproving MPs may be proved wrong. When reality TV veteran Ann Widdecombe heard that Dorries had been suspended, she said: "I don't know who is advising David Cameron. If Nadine gets it right in the jungle, then they have painted themselves into a corner."
In 2006, when George Galloway appeared as the first serving MP on a reality television show, columnist Mick Hume wrote that the move was a symptom of the fact that traditional politics had "no purchase on the public imagination". Six years and an MPs' expenses scandal further down the line, that remains the case – only our feelings about politicians are more negative.
In this context, it may be that shows like I'm A Celebrity- are the ways to connect. Dorries may even have a point when she said: "A lot of people don't vote and if they can see I am a normal mother who comes from a poor background and who didn't go to a posh school, they may think they can be a politician too. Maybe they will trust us more."
Those in the political profession have to ask what represents the bigger risk? Coming across as too fame-seeking, self-revelatory and similar to the millions of people who watch reality television? Or appearing too distant, suit-ish, secretive and masked by spin, causing us to wonder what corruptions and truths they may be covering up? Many might say the latter.
Dorries has said her appearance on I'm A Celebrity- is about getting across her message about the need to shorten the abortion time limit, but her recent swipe at the Prime Minister – "Dave will be happy to get rid of me, I'm a thorn in his side" – may reveal more about her true motivation. Surely this move is about revenge, and revenge with a distinctly political message.
Here she is, a woman of the people, the kind of person who knows the viewers and understands them, and is willing to get undignified for them. In this way, she contrasts herself with the establishment and demonstrates that she is not one of the "posh boys" who have now kicked her out. Their exclusion of her, she is saying, should matter to the viewers. And it may well do. This is a message about the political elite that resonates.
As I write, bets stand at 3/1 for Dorries to be the first one out of the programme. But the show only begins this evening, and a good performance could change those odds. Meanwhile, the real question is not how long she will survive as a contestant, but rather is this the end of her political career, or some new beginning?
Maybe she's had enough and is planning an exit. Or perhaps she will join the growing band of maverick MPs and former politicians, like Widdecombe and Galloway, who have done their time on reality television, survived it, and gone on in their own unorthodox way. Despite predictions that Galloway was politically dead following his Celebrity Big Brother cat-imitating appearance, six years later he was winning Bradford West in a landslide.
Sometimes they have been loved, sometimes hated, but at least they have seemed uncompromisingly themselves.
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