Patrick O’Brien: The Member for the Australian Jungle, Nadine Dorries MP

Nadine Dorries’ recent, rather quixotic, decision to expose herself to the vagaries of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and, in the process, to absent herself from the Commons for up to a month has led to severe criticism, but rather oddly, does not appear to have broken any Commons rules. For those unfamiliar with it (I will presume nothing about the viewing habits of the average UKCLG Blog reader), I’m A Celebrity is a reality TV show set in an Australian rainforest in which a group of B- and C-list celebrities are required to compete a series of increasingly demeaning and unpleasant activities (such as eating assorted invertebrates and being buried in a coffin) in return for food. Viewers are permitted to vote for which contestant should be subjected to a particularly unpleasant task each day. Readers may not be entirely surprised to learn that Dorries has not proven to be a hit with the viewers, who so far have voted for her to endure a ‘bug burial’ and something called ‘rotten rhymes’ that is no doubt equally repugnant but about which I couldn’t be bothered to find out more.

There do not appear to be any rules governing an MP’s attendance in the Commons. The Parliamentary Oath merely requires members of Parliament to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law’. The Code of Conduct for MPs, refers to very general principles of conduct (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness honesty, and leadership), but has very little to say about the day-to-day duties of an MP and deals primarily with financial interests and the obligations to disclose them. As with all external interests, Dorries will be required to disclose her fee for participation in the programme. However, she has decided to donate her MP’s salary received while she is in participating in the programme to charity. Whilst there is a procedure for members of the Lords to take a leave of absence from Parliament there appears to be no equivalent procedure for MPs, many of whom of course take on external paid work as barristers, doctors, members of company boards and so on. The same laxity with regard to attendance does not apply in all Parliaments. Both Houses of Congress in the United States impose a duty upon members to attend, and indeed possess a power to compel attendance by absent members by arresting them if proceedings become inquorate. The Standing Orders of the US Senate (Rule VI) provide that ‘No Senator shall absent himself from the service of the Senate without leave’. In the event that proceedings become inquorate absent senators may be compelled to attend. (Rule XX of the House makes specific reference to the arrest of absent members by the Sergeant-at-Arms). In a number of jurisdictions (such as Germany, France and Ireland) allowances are reduced on a pro rata basis for absence or removed from parliamentarians who do not meet an attendance threshold. In Westminster it seems that attendance is a matter for party whips, who have a role in authorising absences for holidays and by virtue of their power over the career of an MP possess a great deal of influence. Dorries has angered her own party sufficiently to lose the Conservative whip (she disputes the whips’ claim that she gave no advance notice of her intention to be absent from Parliament for up to one month) and may remain outside the Conservative Party on her return to Westminster.

Whilst she has absented herself from Parliament and deprived her constituents of her services, there is a rather pleasing irony involved in Dorries winning a public vote to be covered in thousands of cockroaches. Is it possible that her trip to Australia could have more of a democratic flavour than this? Dorries’ own explanations of her decision to participate in I’m a Celebrity had a representative flavour to them. “A lot of people don’t vote and if they can see I am a normal mother who comes from a poor background and who didn’t go to a posh school, they may think they can be a politician too. Maybe they will trust us more.” (The Guardian) She also maintained that “I may have to eat a kangaroo’s testicle, but I may also get to talk about a twenty week limit for abortion.” (Conservative Home) The latter is clearly ridiculous, but there may be something in her claim to stand for and seek to engage with a certain section of society. Amongst the many and varied roles of an MP – legislator, constituency worker, party member, Government Minister or party spokesperson – we can plausibly include a duty to engage with the public. I’m A Celebrity doesn’t seem like a sensible forum for this, but Dorries may not be far off the mark in suggesting that MPs need to work to break down the perception that MPs are an alien class of professional politicians who inhabit a separate world. Those who with combine work in Parliament with a job outside often argue that exposure to the world outside Westminster makes them better representatives and legislators.

The classic dichotomy in political representation centres on the distinction between acting as a delegate for one’s constituents – pursuing the will of constituents directly – or acting as a trustee – relying on one’s own judgment as the best interests of constituents. Since Dorries has absented herself from Parliament and so will not be making any decisions whilst in the jungle, we can assume that these do not apply here, [1] but one model used by political scientists gets us closer to a fit with Dorries’ Australian adventure. According to the ‘gyroscopic’ model, voters select an MP based not on a norm of accountability but based on who they are – based on their own sense of right and wrong, on their experience and on their capacity. Edmund Burke, on his election as MP for Bristol in 1774, wrote that ‘Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ Comparisons with Burke flatter Dorries far beyond her due, but in a polity in which Boris Johnson has risen to national prominence largely on the basis of a few incoherent appearances on Have I Got News For You it would be naïve to dismiss the possibility that voters simply want a clown. The Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement for 2012 reveals that the proportion of the public who describe themselves as ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested in politics dropped to 41%, a decline of 16% since the 2011 Audit and the lowest figure recorded in the nine years of the Audit series. 30% of those surveyed said they were ‘unlikely’ or ‘absolutely certain not’ to vote (an increase of 10%). In describing herself in an explanatory blog on Conservative Home as ‘an anti-politics politician’ Dorries fits perfectly within this paradigm and has put her finger on a serious problem. Is it possible that – however implausibly – her appearance on I’m A Celebrity could make her a better MP?

Patrick O’Brien is a Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, University College London. 

Suggested citation: P. O’Brien, ‘The Member for the Australian Jungle, Nadine Dorries MP’,  UK Const. L. Blog (15th November 2012) (available at

[1] See J Mansbridge, ‘Rethinking Representation’ (2003) 4 American Political Science Review 515 for a useful summary of some models used by political scientists.