Nadine Dorries has exposed the split in the Conservative party between vulgarity and conformity.
The decision of the MP for Mid Bedfordshire to go on I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is an astonishingly rude attack on the well-bred, self-controlled establishment headed by David Cameron.
Lest we fail to get the message that she has rebelled against the tyranny of those who suppose themselves to be superior to her, Dorries declared on arriving in Australia: "I do not like arrogant people who think they are born to rule."
She also emphasised that, unlike the prime minister and his chums, she is an ordinary person who knows how to use a downmarket television programme to connect with other ordinary people: "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 Tory party hierarchy will trust Dorries less now she has left it in the lurch by flying off for what could be a month's unauthorised absence. It observes that she is likely to miss George Osborne's autumn statement: an event many of us would be happy to miss, but at Westminster these things are regarded as significant.
Cameron supported the decision of Sir George Young, the chief whip, to suspend Dorries' membership of the parliamentary party: "The chief whip took the view – and I back this completely – that she had made the decision to go out and do this programme and that meant she couldn't be in parliament, she couldn't represent her constituents and I think people do expect MPs to be doing either one or two of those things, particularly when parliament is sitting."
This is the language of moral coercion, and was at once recognised as such by many members of the public who knew nothing about the technicalities of the dispute. Dorries herself said: "I'm doing the show because 16 million people watch it. If people are watching I'm a Celebrity, that's where MPs should be going."
The same line of argument was used by Boris Johnson in 2003 when he was criticised for going on Have I Got News For You. So it was no surprise to hear Johnson this week supporting what Dorries has done: "She's got all the skills necessary to survive in the jungle." As a Merrie England Conservative, Johnson is all in favour of whatever vulgarities people find amusing. Nor is he disposed to think Dorries ought to be punished on returning to Westminster: "As I understand it, she's got to come back and explain her action and I'm sure she'll be able to come back and give a very full and exciting account."
Dorries has been famously dismissive of Cameron and George Osborne, saying of them in March this year: "The problem is that policy is being run by two public schoolboys who don't know what it's like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can't afford it for their children's lunchboxes. What's worse, they don't care, either." In April, she returned to the attack, describing Cameron and Osborne as "two arrogant posh boys who don't know the price of milk – who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others".
No wonder people speculate that Dorries might leave the Tories and join Ukip. But my own impression is that she intends to stay in the Conservative party and agitate for a change of leader. Her hero turns out to be another Old Etonian, but one whom she does not dismiss as posh. As she wrote in her Conservative Home blog on 16 September 2012: "Boris is unique. If you view him as a buffoon, you see only the buffoon…" However, she added: "If you realise he is a man who has strong Eurosceptic credentials, is a fan of low taxation, understands growth and who made people feel proud to drape themselves in a Union Jack and declare their love for their country, you see someone else."
This presents a problem for Cameron. It is possible that Dorries will destroy herself in the Australian jungle. But what if millions of television viewers decide she has done very well there?
The point of getting more women MPs, including more like Dorries who are from northern working-class backgrounds and went to comprehensive schools, is to make the party look less dominated by southern English public schoolboys. But this cannot be a merely cosmetic exercise, in which loyal northerners are brought in merely in order to doff their caps to Cameron and Osborne.
Dorries admittedly goes to the opposite extreme, and behaves in an infuriatingly insubordinate manner. She is a woman who knows her own mind. But voters tend to admire this. They regard it as a sign of authenticity. To throw her out would be to suggest that under Cameron's leadership, only subordination will be tolerated.
Dorries was born in Liverpool on 21 May 1957 with the altogether more Dickensian name of Nadine Bargery. Her father was a bus driver who died at the age of 42. She grew up on Breck Road, near Liverpool FC, of whom she remains a passionate supporter. In an interview in 2007 with the War Cry, the newspaper of the Salvation Army, Dorries said: "On match days I used to earn 2/6 looking after people's cars. Money was very tight, so the football money helped. The family food bill was 7/6 and my father was ill from when I was very young. I had an impoverished childhood. I had to borrow shoes from a friend to go to school."
She was educated at Halewood Grange comprehensive, which she left at the age of 16 to train as a nurse. When she married Paul Dorries, a mining engineer, she moved away from Merseyside. The young couple spent a year in Zambia, where he ran a copper mine and she took charge of a school. On returning to England, she set up a company which provided childcare.
Dorries fought and lost the parliamentary seat of Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester in 2001, but gained selection for the safe seat of Mid Bedfordshire in 2005. In 2006, she separated from her husband, with whom she had three daughters. He had multiple sclerosis and she said they had reached "entirely different stages in our lives". They are now divorced.
As a parliamentarian, Dorries has campaigned with enormous determination but as yet no success to get the legal abortion limit reduced from 24 to 20 weeks. In her interview with the War Cry, she explained that her campaign against abortion springs from her religious convictions: "I am not an MP for any reason other than because God wants me to be."
During her time in parliament, Dorries has displayed an impressive capacity to fall out with people. She wanted to overthrow the Speaker, John Bercow, and was furious with the Daily Telegraph's reporting of her expenses claims, some of which turned on the question of where she was living. In October 2010, she said that her blog could not be relied on as a guide to where she was on any particular day: "My blog is 70% fiction and 30% fact. It is written as a tool to enable my constituents to know me better and to reassure them of my commitment to Mid Bedfordshire. I rely heavily on poetic licence and frequently replace one place name/event/fact with another."
Dorries seems at times to be a character from a rather implausible novel. But although she is a maverick, her hostility to Cameron is shared by many Tory backbenchers who would never dream of being so outspoken. Her Australian stunt carries the danger for her that she will be written off as "Mad Nad", as she is sometimes known. But it also carries the danger for Cameron that one of his fiercest critics will become far more famous, and will return to Westminster with an enhanced ability to undermine his authority.
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