Wednesday 21 February 2018

Posh boys behaving badly

British politics has always specialised in bizarre ­sexploits but the outrageous claims made in a new biography of David Cameron still had the power to shock.

David Cameron
David Cameron
Ritual: The Bullingdon Club featuring David Cameron (2nd top left) and Boris Johnson (2nd bottom right)

Joe O'Shea

The phrase 'social media storm' tends to get thrown around a lot. In the case of David Cameron and THAT story, it's been fully justified. The bizarre allegations, made by a former political ally who now appears to be hell-bent on taking a flame thrower to the British PM's reputation, really did 'break the internet' in a way that Kim Kardashian and her well-upholstered derrière could only dream of.

Those of us who have been on Twitter (or catching up on the reliably two-steps-behind Facebook) will know that people have been talking about little else.

And while mainstream media has, understandably, been a bit delicate about the more outré allegations made in the new, very unofficial biog of David Cameron, it's been a predictable free-for-all on the internet.

The former Conservative Party donor, billionaire tax-exile Lord Ashcroft, has made a series of allegations in the book which has been serialised by the Daily Mail.

The really serious allegation, that Cameron knew about the peer's offshore tax status well before he said he did (and conspired to cover it up) have been largely ignored in the rush to make jokes about what the Mail termed "an initiation ceremony" in which Cameron "put a private part of his anatomy" into a dead pig's mouth.

And part of the reason why this particular story has resonated with the public may be the fact that it's what we have come to expect from a certain type of upper-class Englishman, the stereotypical Toffs Behaving Badly.

Of course, the story (claimed vaguely to have come from a serving Tory MP) is shocking, bizarre and without any foundation in fact. There have been no specific denials from Number 10 on the basis that to even acknowledge the smear would be to give it even more traction.

But when we think of English toffs - and their long history of outrageous and just plain weird sex scandals and proclivities - it kind of fits the profile.

The alleged porcine incident is said to have occurred during an initiation ceremony for the Oxford drinking and dining group, the Piers Gaveston Society (or "Piers Gav").

A self-selecting group of 12 undergraduates, all-male, all very well-off and impeccably well-connected, the Piers Gav is named after the male lover of Edward II, king of England from 1307 to 1327.

As the Mail put it, the club encourages "excess, high camp and ostentatious decadence".

As with the other Oxford club in which he was a member, the notorious Bullingdon, the Gav basically seems to be a drinking club for posho students who like to dress up like Bertie Wooster and dance on restaurant tables while shouting abuse at passing oiks and peasants.

And in the 1980s, when Tory grandees and spolited aristos were debagging the odd waiter, the Piers Gav and Bullingdon catered for the stranger urges of the English toff.

In popular culture and the public imagination, the British public school system has always been something of a hot-bed for what would (in the past at least) have been called sexual deviancy.

One Tory prime minister of the 20th Century, Harold Macmillan, was long believed to have been expelled from Eton for engaging in "homosexual activity".

Another version of the story is that his domineering mother, Nellie, got wind of "unnatural activities" and pulled him out of England's poshest public school. Nellie was said to have three great fears for her sons: homosexuality, alcohol and Roman Catholicism.

The late Edward Heath, another Tory PM, was long dogged by whispers of homosexuality. There are claims that, in 1955 and when he was moving up the ladder in politics, he was warned by the police in London to stop cruising for men in "known homosexual haunts".

Of course, simply being gay and engaging in consensual sex with adults would not be an insurmountable problem for Heath or Macmillan if they were in politics today (though far darker allegations against Heath have surfaced in recent months).

The problem for old Bullingdon Club buddies like Cameron, his chancellor George Osborne and potential successor Boris Johnson is the public perception of them as belonging to a caste of callous toffs, the kind of overprivileged idiots who (as one story that came out this week alleges) would burn £50 notes in front of beggars as part of an initiation rite for their clubs.

Former Tory PM John Major watched his "back to basics", family-values-spouting government sink under a tsunami of increasingly bizarre sex scandals, involving one minister who liked to bonk his mistress in a Chelsea football shirt and an MP (the ill-fated Stephen Milligan) who died wearing fishnet stockings and choking inside a bin liner during an auto-erotic sex game which went wrong.

The current crop of toffs at the top of the Tory Party may stand accused of nothing worse than seriously bad behaviour while they were young, stupid and incredibly well-off students.

But the public perception of them - as boorish, overprivileged, out-of-touch poshos - could seriously damage David Cameron and the two men most likely to succeed him, Osborne and Johnson.

George Osborne is seen by many pundits as the most likely man to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservatives. And his pedigree has a very strong Irish element. His father is Sir Peter George Osborne, 17th Baronet of Ballentaylor in Co Tipperary, and Ballylemon in Co Waterford.

The Rt Hon George Gideon Oliver Osborne MP (to give him his proper title) is next in line to the baronetcy, a scion of Anglo-Irish aristocracy whose family once owned a sizeable portion of Co Tipperary. He has a personal fortune estimated at around £4m, mostly derived from a trust fund which was set up through the family business, the wallpaper company started by his father.

David Cameron is the lineal descendant of King William IV, his five-times great-grandfather via his mistress, the Waterford-born actress and courtesan Dorothea Jordan.

Boris Johnson's eigth-great-grandfather was King George II. All three are genuine upper-class posh boys, educated via the best public schools and Oxford.

Pedigree and privilege has helped them to rise to the very top of British politics. But when people suspect you want to dismantle the NHS, royal ancestors plus an affiliation with the type of toffs who taunt the homeless and pull down the trousers of restaurant staff does not play well.

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