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By Betting And Gaming Council

Hard to swallow: Westminster's appetite for the I'm a Celeb jungle

Nigel Farage on I'm a Celebrity (shutterstock)

8 min read

Watching politicians eat Australasian offal has become a light entertainment staple. Tali Fraser explores Westminster’s appetite for the jungle

It was, says Nadine Dorries, only as she was being driven from her appearance on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, the first by a sitting MP, that she started to get a sense of the scale of the “ferocious” reaction. 

“I was caught in a car chase in Australia; they had to put me in a secure lockdown phase and rent this apartment away from everywhere. I remember being in the car, being driven somewhere by the minder, and someone on his radio saying to him, ‘She is very hot stuff at the moment; she has to go into security; you need to take her to this address’. And I said to the girl who was with me, ‘Who’s he talking about?’ She looked at me and went, ‘You!’ 

“I think they had 10m views on the first night. The smoking room in the House of Commons, I was told you couldn’t get in through the doors because MPs had crowded in to watch it on the television.”  

Why do politicians appear on the show? Speaking to a selection of former contestants they admit, with varying degrees of candour, to a mixture of motivations including cash, profile, redemption, boredom, and a desire to raise issues. 

Former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Ӧpik, who entered the jungle in 2010, was first asked if he’d like to appear on the reality show when he was still MP for Montgomeryshire. “I expressed concerns about being away from my work for so long,” he says. “The whole negotiation was about facilitating that issue, resolving the fact that I want to be contactable on the basis of an emergency in my constituency. The only negotiation was really just about being an MP.” 

Though it didn’t work out and he waited until he was no longer an MP, Ӧpik says he went to Dorries’ team to offer advice on how to handle the fallout but “they were too inexperienced to take advantage of that”. 

He wants to reach a new strata of people

The only reason to go on I’m a Celebrity as an MP is for profile, Ӧpik adds. 

“The money is irrelevant,” he says. “It is a mechanism for the profile you can have. If you can pull it off, you can turbocharge your profile, but it’s a big gamble.” 

Ӧpik admits that he was never offered anywhere near the reported £1.5m that former Ukip and Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, is currently down under for; a deal reportedly brokered by Conservative Party member and former Made in Chelsea star Georgia Toffolo, who won her series of I’m a Celebrity back in 2017. 

Christine Hamilton, who entered the jungle in the first ever series of the reality show, says for Farage “obviously the money was a consideration”, but it is not the driving force. 

“I honestly think that he’s done it for the reasons he has set out very clearly: he wants to reach a new strata of people who he wouldn’t normally. First of all, people who he wouldn’t even feature on their radar, young TikTokers. And also people who hate him.” 

Christine Hamilton who entered the jungle in the first series of I'm a Celebrity
Christine Hamilton, who entered the jungle in the first series of I'm a Celebrity

Hamilton was approached to star in the 2002 debut series of I’m a Celebrity following “a rather grim time” for her and husband Neil, the former Conservation MP for Tatton: “I went in and I was basically regarded as hate figure number one. It totally changed people’s perception of me. 

“The good thing was – shock horror – she’s a human being. She’s actually quite nice and she’s fun, she’s got a sense of humour and she’s kind to other people. It completely transformed perceptions so when I came out, I was getting very good, positive vibes.” 

That is what happens if the ‘big gamble’ goes well. For sitting MPs who have entered the jungle during term time (such as Nadine Dorries and Matt Hancock), public reaction has sparked, as Hamilton might put it, ‘bad vibes’. She adds: “They had absolutely no right to go jetting off. It was outrageous. It was insulting to their constituents, to the taxpayer, to the democratic process.” 

Like Farage, Dorries says she didn’t base her decision to join the show on the size of the fee: “I think it was more profile for me,” she says, “though I never planned to go on – they approached me.” 

Dorries also says she “thought it would be a good way to raise issues” but “that didn’t happen because they just didn’t allow any conversation about it at all”. 

It is striking, she says, how much more latitude Farage is being given by the show to air his views: “I think it is extraordinary the amount of political speak they’re allowing with Nigel.” 

Nadine Dorries returning from her stint in the I'm a Celebrity jungle
Nadine Dorries returning from her stint in the I'm a Celebrity jungle

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Brian Paddick, who entered the jungle in 2008, was quickly shut down by the show’s psychiatrist when he tried to explain his reasoning for joining the I’m a Celebrity cast list. 

“We had a three-hour conversation before going on, to make sure you’re not going to lose it while you’re in the jungle and start hitting people, and I said that I wanted people to see the real me. 

“She said: ‘If you think being put into a setting that you’ve never been in before, with 11 strangers, where they deprive you of sleep and food, that people are going to see the real you – you’ve got another think coming.’” 

Lord Paddick was asked on the show following his unsuccessful campaign to become the Mayor of London for the Liberal Democrats. “I had no political future,” he says. “Therefore, there was nothing to lose from going on.” 

Plus, Lord Paddick adds with a chuckle, “there was nothing in the diary”. Also, he and his then-fiancé Petter Belsvik, “had a wedding to pay for”. 

It is not far off the reasoning Ӧpik had for going on after he was no longer an MP: “Curiosity and money were the main reasons.” 

The former MP says it is “naive” for anyone, like Dorries, to think you will be able to get a message across in the jungle – “it is your personality and character, nothing else”. 

Ӧpik adds: “If Nick Clegg had gone in there, it would have been catastrophic, because people would have realised what he’s really like, so he would have suffered. Whereas for Matt Hancock it was good, useful and worthwhile, because he came across in a nice way.” 

Dorries “loved” her time in the jungle “because it was so different, just to be with normal people for a few weeks was really nice”; an interesting take on being surrounded by celebrities including Eric Bristow, Ashley Roberts and David Haye. 

She emphasises: “They were more normal than the people I was used to dealing with in Westminster.” 

Dorries credits her former cabinet colleague Hancock for having done “really well” to finish in third place last year, but doesn’t recommend other MPs follow in their footsteps. 

“I just don’t think any politician comes off well, because I don’t think they are edited well. I think what ITV are playing on is public anger and public disdain for politicians.” 

Hancock, like Dorries, lost the Conservative whip over his stint on the show, which saw the former health secretary tell his fellow contestants that he was looking for “a bit of forgiveness” after it was revealed he broke social distancing rules during the pandemic. 

I think it is extraordinary the amount of political speak they’re allowing with Nigel

Ӧpik was impressed with Hancock’s appearance on the show and says he would get “the prize for most improved” political figure on the show. 

Farage’s current appearance is the one to really watch out for, Ӧpik adds, for both entertainment and political reasons: “I think Farage is the one person in the history of the show, the one politician who can actually wag the dog of British politics by building his own popularity and profile even further. I’ve never known anyone in a better position to influence the next general election by being in the jungle than him.” 

It remains to be seen how well Farage will fare down under, but Dorries thinks his game plan is far too obvious after he was caught confessing his voting strategy to fellow campmate Grace Dent, saying that bushtucker trials get 25 per cent of air time – and “I’m looking at reaching a whole new audience”. 

“Someone should have told Nigel that the microphones pick up absolutely everything,” Dorries says. “They are so sensitive, so the fact that he was whispering to someone thinking it wouldn’t be picked up, saying he wants to do the challenges and he is peed off because he’s not doing them because he wants the airtime, was so cynical. I think it’s just going to go against him.” 

Hamilton agrees that it was “naive and a mistake” for him to have “revealed his game plan”, but still thinks that Farage is winning people over in his more off-the-cuff moments, like when he bared his bum in the shower, taking a leaf out the book of Lord Paddick who braved a naked shower during his time in the jungle. 

Though Hamilton doesn’t think Farage will win: “Politicians just don’t tend to do well.” 

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