What are we to make of the Tory MP Nadine Dorries flying halfway around the world to make a fool of herself, in the company of Z-list celebrities, in front of a very large television audience, to say nothing of the salivating tabloids? What we should not hold against her is her views, whether they go against the grain or not. On the contrary. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Going against the grain is what a good MP should be prepared to do from time to time, though it was probably a little reckless to call the leaders of her party “arrogant posh boys”.
There is nothing new about minor public figures making fools of themselves. In the 1930s, the Rev Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey, attracted a great deal of attention for sharing a cage with a circus lion which ultimately resulted in his tragic death (a fate which we hope will not overtake Ms Dorries). There is, however, one difference. The Rev Davidson was the ex-Rector of Stiffkey. Unjustly defrocked and having lost any chance of earning a respectable living, the poor man was desperate.
The same cannot be said of Ms Dorries. She has not been defrocked (yet). She is the elected representative of the people of Mid-Bedfordshire for which she is paid a salary of £65,000 a year. Nor is she desperate for anything, except perhaps publicity.
True, Ms Dorries is by no means the first Member of Parliament to succumb to the temptations of tabloid TV. Indeed, she is following a trail blazed by no less a figure than Mr George Galloway who, in January 2006, astonished the nation by appearing dressed as a cat in Celebrity Big Brother. Far from doing him any lasting damage, Galloway has since gone on to be re-elected to Parliament at a recent by-election in Bradford. A remarkable feat and one which Ms Dorries will be lucky to repeat. Mr Galloway, however, is a one-off, who at his best possesses oratorical skills that eclipse those of most of his contemporaries. Like him or not, he is also at heart a serious politician, a factor which has allowed him, thus far at least, to defy political gravity. Ms Dorries is not in the same league.
To those who say that she is demeaning the dignity of Parliament, Dorries may well reply that Parliament’s dignity has been much more demeaned by the activities of those of her colleagues who have been caught fiddling their expenses. (On second thoughts, perhaps she won’t pursue that line of argument having been investigated herself by the parliamentary watchdog although ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.) What she will certainly argue, and indeed already has, is that by appearing in a programme that is liable to be viewed by up to 16 million people, she is somehow getting across the message that politicians are normal people.
Well, Nadine, I don’t buy that. I’m a Celebrity… is not normal. It is a freak show. The way for a politician to appear normal is to, so far as possible, share the same sunshine and the same rainfall as the people he or she represents. In what other walk of life could someone who is paid a good salary suddenly go Awol for up to a month and expect to come home and pick up again where she left off without consequences? Parliament needs this like a hole in the head.
Look at me!
In my view, reality TV is part of an unfortunate trend, in response to which a generation of politicians is growing up whose principal concern is self-advertisement rather than the representation of their constituents or the making of laws.
Likewise all this texting, tweeting and blogging which has turned sloganising and shallow judgement into an art form, often eclipsing serious dialogue. It is a type of vanity publishing of which the late, not very lamented Louise Mensch was the undisputed queen before she burned out after only two and a half years and waltzed off, leaving her constituents and her party in the lurch (although, interestingly, even La Mensch has joined the chorus of condemnation of the hapless Dorries).
Used wisely, digital media can no doubt be a force for good, a way for otherwise obscure backbenchers to smuggle a message to the outside world. All too often, however, it is a substitute for serious effort, leading to greatly diminished attention spans and providing fuel for the feeding frenzies which, with increasing frequency, disfigure public life. When I chaired the Home Affairs Select Committee, I used to advise new members that there were three basic rules: read your brief, keep your backside on the seat throughout the session and ask brief, relevant questions – for which a course can be provided, if necessary. But then I guess I am a dinosaur.
Sadly, and not without irony, Nadine Dorries is in some ways precisely the sort of person that Parliament could do with more of: a nurse by profession, the daughter of a bus driver and a teacher, brought up on a Liverpool council estate. There are not many of these in a party awash with alpha males educated at our finest public schools. A woman with a CV like hers ought to be gold dust to the modern Tory party.
Who knows, she may surprise us, and return in glory. Expectations are not high and may well be exceeded. Perhaps there will be a sudden backlash in her favour which her political masters find impossible to resist, but somehow I doubt it. I fear she has self-destructed and I am sorry about that.
Chris Mullin is a former Labour minister. ‘A Walk-on Part’, his third volume of diaries, is now out in paperback