The voting booth can be a confusing place. As pencil dithers above paper, all sorts of questions come to mind. Who or what do I believe in? Is this a wasted vote? Which one will sort out my recycling bins? Can he or she do a back pike two-and-a-half somersault with a one-and-a-half twist from the top board?
That last question is traditionally the hardest one to answer, but the next time voters in Portsmouth North face a poll, they will be fully armed with the facts. Their Conservative MP, Penny Mordaunt, has signed up to compete in Splash!, the ITV reality show in which sort-of famous people dive into a swimming pool for the nation’s mild amusement.
There is a sliding scale of celebrity television contests. The classy option, relatively speaking, is to do a Christmas University Challenge or Mastermind: an ideal forum in which to impress while exhibiting titbits of man-of-the-people knowledge about onesies and EastEnders. A step down come those shows which allow contestants to hone a socially acceptable skill, like baking or conducting an orchestra. Strictly Come Dancing can be quite becoming if you’re doing a foxtrot, less so if you’re doing a jive and not at all if you’re Ann Widdecombe in cerise satin and a harness.
After this come the desperate depths – those programmes which have to put “Celebrity” in their title because otherwise it might not be clear who the assembled Botoxed sociopaths are – Celebrity Big Brother, for example, or I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!. Within these, there is a tiny subsection I like to call the have-they-absolutely-lost-their-mind shows which combine the standard loss of dignity with skimpy clothing and the possibility of embarrassing injury.
Splash! is one of those. In signing up, Mordaunt has elected not only to enter the bear pit that is Saturday night prime time but to do so while wearing a swimming costume, alongside an unknown from Towie, a disgraced glamour model, a child dancer and Paul Young. She has, in her own words, “the diving prowess of a paving slab”, so she also runs the very real risk of doing a belly flop in front of five million or so people.
Mordaunt is already known as something of a character in the House of Commons. A Royal Navy reservist who once worked as a magician’s assistant, she has been voted the sexiest female parliamentarian. She is also, at 40, and parliamentary private secretary to the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, a rising star with her career ahead of her. So why risk it? She has said that she intends to donate her fee to several armed forces charities and a local campaign to renovate a lido, but the 940 constituents who face unemployment as a result of BAE moving their shipbuilding to Scotland might have preferred a more boots-on-the-ground approach to her duties.
Television has a wide and powerful reach, but that power is dangerous. George Galloway’s righteous ire has never sounded quite the same since he lapped imaginary cream from Rula Lenska’s hands in the Big Brother House. The link between Nadine Dorries and ostrich anus is now inextricable thanks to her stint in the jungle. When Mordaunt next stands up to debate shipbuilding, her rival MPs won’t have to imagine her semi-clad to get the upper hand; they will already have seen her in a Speedo. Entertainment and politics do not mix. And for a politician to assume that the only way to engage with the people is by gagging on a lamb’s testicle or teetering on a diving board is patronising indeed.
True, more people will have heard of Mordaunt today than yesterday. But the notion that MPs can raise consciousness or improve life for those they were elected to serve by appearing on reality television is ludicrous. However honourable Mordaunt’s intentions might be – and showing off must surely come into it – the programme-makers are in it for ratings, not to further the cause of their subjects. You need only watch Benefits Street to realise that.