Tory Party

Cameron & Boris – The Early years Revisited

Bullingdon 1987 Cameron Johnson

September 26 2009; The Bullingdon Boys – When Boris met Dave

Two years ago, a photograph of the 1987 Bullingdon Club emerged. It showed a bunch of elegant, arrogant and carefully coiffured teenagers wearing tailcoats and bow ties; it seemed like a curious snapshot from Britain’s high Victorian era. So it was a shock to discover that this photo was in fact taken in the mid-Eighties, a time more synonymous with Wham!, Beverly Hills Cop and the miners’ strike. If you looked closely, you recognized the blond seated in the front row staring defiantly into the camera as Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Look harder, you’d spot the man most likely to be leading the country next year: David Cameron, a handsome youth staring dreamily into the distance.

But what was the Bullingdon Club? What drove the generation that spawned today’s two most powerful Conservative politicians in the country? And how had they been shaped by a background of Eton, Oxford and secret societies?

In Washington we tracked down U.S. political consultant Frank Luntz, who helped Johnson gain the presidency of the Oxford Union and years later worked on Cameron’s Tory leadership bid. Luntz witnessed the extraordinary birth of Johnson the Machiavellian politician. Aware of how unfashionable it was to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, and having failed to win the presidency once, Johnson presented himself as an environmentalist and even let it be known that he was aligned with the then-popular Social Democrat Party. ‘I’d never seen anyone speak like him,’ said Luntz. ‘There was a candid quality to him. I initially thought it was an act, because I’d never seen it in anyone before.’ Johnson thrived at the Union but he also coveted the presidency of the Bullingdon, which would have given him the ultimate stamp of social approval.

The Bullingdon was founded in 1780, originally as a hunting and cricket club. From the beginning its name was synonymous with excessive drinking and a competitive destructiveness, and membership has always been by invitation only and known for being, for most, prohibitively expensive (costs include a bespoke set of tails, outrageously lavish dinners and a charge against expected damages). Past ‘Bullers’ include Edward VII, Edward VIII, John Profumo and Alan Clark. The club was also satirized by Evelyn Waugh as ‘the Bollinger’ in Decline And Fall. ‘I was awoken from a deep sleep by a dozen men in tailcoats, who smashed up my furniture, books, hi-fi., everything… I was completely dazed’

Three of the boys in the 1987 picture had titled parents, and Cameron is fifth cousin twice removed from the Queen. But in spite of his ‘poshest chap in the land’ schtick, Johnson is not so well connected. He’s a scholarship boy from a bohemian background, and while he was reportedly always at the heart of ‘the Buller’, he never won its presidency. Luckily he was a very bright boy and his father, Stanley, was always extremely zealous in seeking out scholarships and prizes for him, without which Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon would have proved out of reach. At Eton he shone brightly but also gained a reputation for complacency and procrastination. Cameron, two years behind him, would have been aware of Johnson but this awareness is unlikely to have been reciprocated. At Oxford the two again crossed paths – and this time Johnson must have become familiar with the future Tory leader.

From the beginning, the Club’s name was synonymous with excessive drinking and a competitive destructiveness, and membership has always been by invitation only By getting elected into the Buller, Johnson pulled off another feat of social climbing and, once in, he threw himself into the ritualized drinking with gusto. Drunken destruction was a trademark of the Buller and trashing bedrooms was the standard form of initiation. Radek Sikorski, now Poland’s Foreign Minister, recounted an extraordinary story of Johnson leading a troop of Bullers into his room in the dead of night. ‘I was awoken from a deep sleep by a dozen men in tailcoats, who smashed up my furniture, books, hi-fi, everything,’ he said. ‘I was completely dazed. Then Boris shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, you’ve been elected!”‘ Johnson (whose nickname at Eton had been ‘the Berserker’) was the quintessential Buller.

But Cameron was harder to pin down – more likely to shirk than ‘berserk’. Photos from the time show him to be an elegant man, and a touch aloof. We tracked down one of his Oxford girlfriends, Francesca Ferguson, to her home in Switzerland. ‘He was a tall, intelligent, fit guy,’ she remembers. ‘I fancied him!’ She said that one time she brought him home to meet her father and her German mother. Cameron gave them a Monty Python record, which, unbeknown to him, included a famously bad-taste Hitler and Goebbels sketch in which the two Nazi leaders have taken over a B&B in Minehead after the war. When Francesca’s family insisted on immediately playing the record, Cameron apparently doubled over in embarrassment. Yet somehow he was able to charm his way back into the family’s affections so nimbly that Francesca’s mother predicted his political rise. ‘My mother said to me, “He’ll be Prime Minister one day…” In fact she thought the episode was hysterical, and still does.’ No one else suspected Cameron might one day be PM.

According to his best friend at the time Giles Andreae, better known as creator of the best-selling ‘Purple Ronnie’ cartoon character, Cameron was hard-working but showed no interest in politics. They spent most of their time on the sofa watching daytime TV. ‘We’d watch Neighbours and Going For Gold, and then go for a pint and a game of darts once we’d finished our work,’ he said.

Johnson and Cameron’s political rivalry is every bit as defining of the next ten years as was the Brown-Blair one of the past decade Cameron had almost been thrown out of Eton for smoking cannabis. Perhaps it was this drug-related scrape that meant he kept his head down at Oxford. Or perhaps he just had a blood-borne assurance that he belonged to a grander narrative. As he prepared to leave Oxford with his First in PPE he applied for jobs in banking and management consultancy..and the Conservative Research Department.

On the day of his interview Tory Central Office received a phone call from Buckingham Palace saying that they were about to meet an exceptional young man. It’s unclear who made the call but among the suspects is Captain Sir Alastair Aird, then Equerry to the Queen Mother and husband of Fiona Aird, Cameron’s godmother. Cameron believes it was Aird who made the call; Aird himself denies it. Whatever the truth, it seems that Cameron’s blue-blood connections did him no harm. Perhaps the most revealing snapshot of Cameron at Oxford is not, ultimately, the photograph of him in his Bullingdon finery but the image of him kicking back on the sofa watching daytime TV. He didn’t need to try too hard, and his lack of obvious ambition may be his biggest weapon. Oxford alumnus Toby Young says, ‘Cameron very consciously didn’t just hang out with other old Etonians but mixed a lot with other people. That’s probably what makes him such an effective leader today.’

Johnson always wore his ambition to be prime minister on his sleeve. Yet he’s likely to be pipped to the top job by someone he’s known most of his life but probably didn’t suspect was a contender until quite recently. This is a political rivalry every bit as defining of the next ten years as was the Brown-Blair one of the past decade. And it all started more than 20 years ago with the photo, when Boris met Dave.

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