How these Eton toffs could have a say in our future
Our reporter on the bizarre schoolboy rivalry at the heart of English politics that wouldn't be out of place in the 18th century
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
It could be the late 18th century all over again: two graduates of England's most exclusive school, Eton, are sparring over something that will have a profound effect on Ireland. That something is Europe and should Britain pull out of the EU, as one of those Old Etonians, London Mayor Boris Johnson, is campaigning for them to, the impact will likely be felt on this country for decades. Should that other OE, Prime Minister David Cameron, be successful in his drive to ensure Britain stays in the European fold, many here - not least Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour - will breathe an enormous sigh of relief.
It's no secret that Johnson has long had designs on leading the Conservatives, and observers in Britain believe that if he 'wins' the Brexit vote and Britain opts to leave the EU, it will only be a matter of time before he takes Cameron's job, too.
There's no love lost between the two rivals, who have known each other since they were teenagers. It was reported that Johnson informed "Dave", as he likes to call him, he would campaign for Britain to leave Europe just 10 minutes before he went public on the matter. And his method of communication? Text message.
The backgrounds of both Tories could hardly be more similar. Both are products of an elite, class-driven educational system that has been fundamental in shaping British Prime Ministers for centuries. Not only did they both attend Eton, but they also went to Oxford University and were even members of the same society, the infamous Bullingdon Club.
But, first, Eton: the Berkshire "independent" boarding school for boys dates from 1440 and was founded by Henry VI. Its current fees are £11,907 per term - or £35,721 per year (€45,145) - making it one of the three most-expensive schools in the country.
Johnson, two years Cameron's senior, distinguished himself as an outstanding scholar with boundless self-confidence and was made prefect. Cameron, by contrast, was considered an ordinary student - by Eton's standards - and not nearly as boisterous as Johnson, although he risked expulsion in his final year when he was caught smoking cannabis.
Few observers in the mid-1980s would have plumped for Cameron as a future prime minister. And talking of Johnson as prime minister would not have been fanciful: of the 53 prime ministers in British history, 19 have been educated at Eton - far more than any other school.
But, at Brasenose College, Oxford, Cameron would prove to be the more diligent student. He got a first in his arts degree (specialising in philosophy, politics and economics: PPE) whereas Johnson, studying at Oxford's Balliol College, only achieved a 2.1, albeit in the classics, a degree course seen as the more difficult.
While Cameron would have been aware of the older Johnson at Eton, especially as he was a prefect, the two got to know each other at Oxford when both were invited to become members of the Bullingdon Club. The venerable and unofficial Oxford University society has long been depicted in popular culture as something of a Bacchanalian gathering where bad behaviour is not just tolerated, but encouraged. Although it reputedly only meets twice a year, this exclusively male collective - nicknamed 'the Riot Club' - has been banned from several establishments in Oxford as former members throughout its 200-year-old history have trashed several venues.
A celebrated photo (pictured) of 'Buller' members in the mid-1980s shows both Cameron and Johnson dressed in expensive tailcoats and looking rich, privileged and feckless. When the image came to light shortly after Cameron became leader of the Tories, it inspired a 90-minute docudrama, When Boris Met Dave.
Johnson took the image in his stride, laughing it off as youthful jeu d'esprit. But Cameron told the BBC he was "desperately embarrassed" about it, and his critics on the left pointed out that it represented what an old-school Tory toff he really was and why it was gilt-edged evidence that he would be incapable of understanding the real problems of ordinary Britain.
The journalist James Delingpole, who was friends with both Cameron and Johnson at Oxford, has written extensively about the trio's college days. "This was the 80s, when we all had to party 'like it was 1999,'" he wrote in 2010.
"Margaret Thatcher was into her second term, having restored a semblance of national pride by winning the Falklands and putting Britain back on the economic map; the city had been deregulated; and, perhaps most important of all, Brideshead Revisited had recently been on television and the Sloane Ranger's Handbook had just been published, providing the template for Oxbridge graduate larks for the ensuing decade.
"Were we arrogant, loud, vomit-stained and repellent? Yes. But we were young, we were bumptious and this was the spirit of the times. For Dave Cameron not to have misbehaved in this way himself, on occasion, would not have marked him out as mature and civilised. It would have stigmatised him as a total ruddy freak."
While Cameron may have outperformed Johnson in the college exams, it was still the latter who looked more likely to be a big deal in politics.
"Boris, with his Churchillian sense of destiny, spent much of his undergraduate career preparing for a future in office," Delingpole recalls. "Dave, on the other hand, drank beer, played tennis and listened to the Smiths. And Supertramp. He wasn't that cool."
And yet, after Oxford, when both started making a name for themselves as young Conservatives, it was Cameron who ascended the ladder fastest and highest. Now, with Europe at stake, Johnson perhaps sees this as his last opportunity to knock "Dave" off his perch.
"Imagine being the cleverest of the clever, the brightest of the bright, someone extraordinary - and seeing the greatest jewel pocketed by someone, well, ordinary," wrote the Daily Telegraph's political correspondent James Kirkup this week. "That's an awfully big itch to go unscratched for so long.
"The best way to understand Boris and Dave is a story they both tell in private. It's about a meeting in No 10 on some minor aspect of the London budget. Dave wants to minimise his spending; Boris to get the most cash he can. The PM has a briefing paper that reveals the most he's prepared to give Boris. Boris wants to see it. The PM refuses. Boris tries to grab it. The PM snatches it away.
"The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London end up wrestling on the floor trying to seize the paper. And the vital detail is that each man tells the story that he got the paper. Even in a slightly juvenile squabble, they both want people to know that they won over the other."
And, it's said, so much of their rivalry goes back to their formative years at boarding school. Rachel Johnson, Boris's journalist sister, had this to say in the BBC radio interview some years ago: "When they're together it's rather sweet, because David - even though he's taller - looks at Boris as if he's still head boy at Eton."
When asked if her brother felt resentful that Cameron had become prime minister, she didn't hesitate: "No, it gives Boris a sense of continuing superiority because he was Captain of the School."