I suppose the question was not if Ant and Dec would become the nation’s political conscience, but when. They are a two-man Northern Powerhouse with broad cross-party support and an unerring sense of the public mood, and not only when they are monitoring a phone vote. They obviously have a strong sense of left and right (Ant always on the left, for the viewer). They have endured decades in the public eye and have come through some difficult times as beloved as ever. Politicians long for these qualities.
But, until now, Ant and Dec have kept their political cards reasonably close to their chests. Light entertainers and politicians have traditionally enjoyed a cordial entente. It is an unspoken parallel of the separation of powers between the legislative and the judiciary. The distance is based on mutual respect, and a recognition that the nation depends on these two pillars of power. Politicians have long known that one cannot exist without the other, and that to lose either would be to plunge the country in to anarchy.
But it is a delicate balance, and even light entertainers have limits. In 2011, Matt Baker memorably crossed a line on The One Show. He and David Cameron had enjoyed a classic afternoon chinwag, musing on the royal wedding and whether an owl or cat would make a better mouser. Baker waited for his moment before pouncing and asking, “Just very quickly, how on earth do you sleep at night?” Cameron, obviously flustered, answered that he slept well, but the damage was done. Baker’s steel was felt all the more sharply for being concealed in a bed of fluff.
This year, something inside Ant and Dec has obviously snapped. Perhaps it’s because there is a light entertainer, Boris Johnson, in the big chair. If a man best known for hosting panel shows is the literal prime minister, why not Ant and Dec, who bow to no one in their skill with a minor ad-lib in a scripted link? They have looked at the British political situation and thought to themselves: “Why, I’ve had it up to here. This means wor.” All through the current series of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, they have been nibbling satirically at the prime minister’s heels. Last week, when David Ginola was appointed camp leader, Dec asked his co-presenter what a leader did. “Well, they look increasingly dishevelled, give cushy jobs to their mates and pretty much make it up as they go along.” Grinning down the camera like a cheeky sniper, Dec added: “Evening, prime minister.”
Hostilities have escalated this week. They have hounded Boris Johnson over his handling of the alleged parties in No 10 last Christmas. On Tuesday, Dec, referring to a party in the I’m a Celeb castle, said: “This party didn’t include cheese and wine, or a secret Santa. Evening, prime minister… for now!” On Wednesday they followed up with more of the same.
Ant and Dec are giving the impression of entertainers who have run through a full spectrum of attitudes towards public discourse. For most of their miraculously long career they have kept their counsel, consummate professionals. Now suddenly, this. Their previous reticence makes their intervention all the more potent. There are signs other light entertainers are taking notice. On Friday morning, Alison Hammond, she of the most powerful laugh in television, tweeted that she would be applying for the job of prime minister.
Where will it stop? If Arnold Schwarzenegger can be governor of California, there is no reason Philip Schofield can’t be health secretary. Ed Balls and Michael Portillo have shown that it is possible for politicians to enjoy a happy afterlife as light entertainers; perhaps we should look forward to TV presenters seeking elected office. Anyone who claims they would rather Priti Patel were making decisions than, say, Dermot O’Leary, is fooling themselves. All the things we seek in a politician – fairness, a sense of the audience’s mood, an ability to adjust to fast-changing circumstances – are abundant in live television hosts.
There is a precedent for this awakening. For years, footballers, too, were encouraged to keep a (long, hooped) sock in it when it came to politics. In the case of some footballers, such as Peter Shilton, who has spent 35 years making up for not being reactionary enough when Maradona was advancing, it’s probably for the best. But others, notably Marcus Rashford, have realised that with millions of devoted supporters following them on social media, they no longer have to rely on intermediaries. Rashford forced the government into a series of U-turns. Now Ant and Dec have had enough, you wouldn’t bet on Boris surviving much longer. They’re the celebrities, and they’re going to get him out of there.
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