As I returned to the House of Commons, it was clear I had swapped one jungle for another. For the last few weeks I have been in Australia filming I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! and the Conservative leadership were less than impressed. In desperation to prevent me from taking part, No. 10 drew a grenade from their armoury in the form of a whip suspension. It had no impact on my decision to join the show, but did help make me one of the best-known politicians in Britain. I wonder if that is really what they were trying to achieve?
When I was first approached by the show’s producers, I politely declined. I couldn’t see any benefit in travelling halfway around the world to eat camel toe for the public’s amusement. But I changed my mind after learning about the size of the I’m A Celebrity electorate. At least ten million viewers per night watch the programme, twice as many people as voted in the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections. These are the people Tory politicians find difficult to reach (unless you’re a pint of Carling or your name is Boris). Politics is about advancing causes that you believe in and I was being offered a bigger audience in a week than I would gain by a lifetime of Commons speeches. Once my mind was made up, I entered a state of Girl Guide euphoria (while sworn to secrecy). I sang ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’ so often, I am amazed my staff never cottoned on.
Days later I was camping, starving and surviving with 11 other ‘celebrities’. I soon realised that each was probably more right-wing than I am. David Haye, world heavyweight boxing champion and my new best friend, believes convicted paedophiles should be transported to a remote island and made to live on rice, beans and water. (An idea inspired by our diet in the jungle.) Mild-mannered Birds of a Feather star Linda Robson did not hold back on her opinion of the abortion limit of 24 weeks. ‘That’s not abortion, it’s murder!’ she proclaimed to a camera. I’ll remember that line in parliament. They wouldn’t broadcast it, either.
Many MPs take jollies from the House of Commons, but in seven years I have never spent a day away from my Westminster duties. This is why I thought I would be allowed to devote a few days of my holiday to a reality TV show. As far as I could see, the Conservative party is intensely relaxed about such absences. Some of its MPs have full-time careers in the City, others run family businesses or write books. We even, via coalition, have Vince Cable, who foxtrotted his way through Strictly Come Dancing. As Parliament was on recess for a week, I thought: no big deal. I thought wrong. Andrew Mitchell, chief whip at the time, announced that I had not asked for permission. (I later found out that he made his pronouncement from his own holiday in Antigua.) The hypocrisy is appalling. An MP can take three weeks off with his legal ‘clients’ and the whips don’t care. But if a working-class woman wants to take a few parliamentary days off — participating in a show watched by millions of ordinary voters — then it’s seen as high treason.
After my eviction, I sank into a much-needed bath, then checked my neglected inbox. A senior figure at Google emailed me to say that he had become an avid watcher of the show and that I had had twice as many Google searches as David Cameron. The searches came from Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool — places that are seldom concerned about Tories. It was not always thus. When I was growing up in inner-city Liverpool, the council was in Conservative control and the city had eight Conservative MPs. A grocer’s daughter — considered vulgar by the old guard of her own party — connected with the strivers and blue-collar workers and had a true Scouse following. Today, interest in a Tory MP from Liverpool makes a Google exec take notice.
When I landed at Heathrow, I was met by two security guards who warned me that a swarm of paparazzi lay in wait. I thought about standing before them making a little speech against ageism and high taxes — but decided against it. Part of the reason for eating the camel toe is that, when I came back, I might win a hearing from people who hate politics. Or who normally hate politics. The old Westminster system is decaying and fewer people than ever tune into SW1’s own reality TV show. Instead of MPs expecting the public to look at us, we should go to where the public are — and that’s what I tried to do. Yes, I’ve been vilified. But now it’s up to me to fight back.