I'm a politician, get me in there

Observations on reality TV

The former ballet dancer Wayne Sleep, wearing a specially made waffle-suit, slithered along a Perspex tube. Rats scrabbled over his head, desperate to get out of the limelight, lest word should get round the sewers of their involvement in such a tawdry TV programme. If the rodents were embarrassed, the celebrities were immune to their shame, happy for millions to watch them. A bunch of has-beens sitting in an Australian jungle compound talking rubbish and playing stupid games have consistently drawn more than ten million viewers over the past two weeks.

Politicians salivate at the prospect of such an audience, but they can't be quite as overt at inviting humiliation upon themselves as ageing weathergirls and self-basting TV chefs. On the other hand, publicity-hungry politicians don't have to try nearly as hard to humiliate themselves. When the Guardian recently revealed its piss-take posters, rebranding the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith clearly thought the paper had provided him with a photo opportunity. Instead of avoiding this exercise in humiliation, IDS and his beaming wife posed for the cameras in front of a poster saying "My cat died under a Labour government". He calculated that the public exposure was more valuable than the context in which he was pictured. But his misjudgement showed his desperation for votes, attention and publicity- and effortlessly reconnected him with the vote-losing antics of his predecessor. When William Hague wore a cap marked with his name at a theme park, he managed to patronise the entire electorate - as well as look like a spanner.

Since then, Neil and Christine Hamilton have taken to an extreme the concept of humiliation-for-publicity. Christine was in the first series of I'm a Celebrity last year. Ambitious MPs, after witnessing this crossover from Westminster to prime time, must have seriously considered applying for a slot in the next series.

Exposing yourself to humiliation is not just a Conservative skill: new Labour is good at it, too. Slow hand-clapping the Prime Minister is now more tradition than protest. As an actor manque, the PM is a natural celebrity; but as a politician, he has become an expert at cringe-making populist gestures. Remember when he launched the last Labour general election campaign, reading from the Bible surrounded by adoring schoolchildren? Sanctimony was made flesh.

As part of a concerted media campaign to rejuvenate his persona, following the wearying campaign in Iraq, Tony Blair devised a game show of his own. Just like the daft bushtucker trials in which I'm a Celebrity contestants compete, Blair invited viewers "backstage" at No 10. Voyeurs marvelled at Nick Danziger's pictures of Blair in his socks.

The celebrification of Blair's privacy was devoured just as voraciously as the meaningless footlings of jungle-bound has-beens. And it was just as inane. A photograph of Tony Blair strumming a guitar among children's toys has the same embarrassment factor as Antony Worrall Thompson rolling around in the mud. Except that Blair wants to win not a delivery of rice, but popularity.

The vicarious pleasure that Joe Public derives from watching public figures degrade themselves is positively Roman. Reality TV is the modern-day equivalent of a gladiatorial bout, where the audience decided the Christians' fate. Because they controlled the weathergirl Sian Lloyd's fate, people were more interested in the first eviction from I'm a Celebrity than about the resignation of the shadow trade minister Crispin Blunt.

Direct democracy terrifies MPs, but at least it only happens in make-believe celebrityville. If it didn't, Toyah Wilcox would be forming her first cabinet with Wayne Sleep as her chancellor. An image only slightly less alarming than the prospect of John Prescott, in a body-hugging waffle-suit, writhing through a Perspex tube; or Clare Short in a skimpy bikini, thrashing around in a crocodile-infested swamp. Enough to make you squirm and shout: "Get me out of here!"