‘A nursery of the Commons’: how the Oxford Union created today’s ruling political class | Boris Johnson | #ukscams | #datingscams | #european

When I arrived at Oxford in 1988 to study history and German, it was still a very British and quite amateurish university, shot through with sexual harassment, dilettantism and sherry. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and the much less prominent David Cameron had graduated just before I arrived, but from my messy desk at the student newspaper Cherwell, I covered a new generation of future politicians. You couldn’t miss Jacob Rees-Mogg, the only undergraduate who went around in a double-breasted suit, or Dan Hannan who, at the age of 19, founded a popular Eurosceptic movement called the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain, which, with hindsight, looks like the intellectual genesis of Brexit. Cherwell was a poor imitation of Private Eye – inaccurate, gnomic and badly written in the trademark Oxford tone of relentless irony, with jokes incomprehensible to outsiders, but it turns out that we weren’t just lampooning inconsequential teenage blowhards. Though we didn’t realise it, we were witnessing British power in the making.

Probably the main reason Oxford has produced so many prime ministers is the Oxford Union debating society. Founded in 1823, based in a courtyard behind the Cornmarket shopping street, the union when I encountered it was a kind of children’s House of Commons. Like its London model, it resembled a gentlemen’s club complete with reading rooms, writing room and bar, and, across the garden, Europe’s largest purpose-built debating chamber.

The union was one of those Oxford institutions that can flatter middle-class teenagers such as William Hague and Theresa May into feeling posh. Union officers wore white tie, speakers black tie, and everyone called one another “honourable member”. The walls were lined with busts of former prime ministers who had been union men. Nineteen-year-olds debated visiting 60-year-old cabinet ministers, and tried to loll on the frontbenches just like them. Christopher Hollis, in his 1965 book on the union, called the place “a parody of the parliament of 1864 rather than that of 1964”.

It hadn’t changed much by the 1980s. I never became a member, but I sometimes got press tickets to debates, and I remember a young Benjamin Netanyahu dispatching hecklers, and, on the 50th anniversary of Dunkirk, former prime minister Ted Heath evoking Oxford in 1940 when German invasion loomed. Heath had been elected union president in November 1938 after accusing Neville Chamberlain of “turning all four cheeks to Hitler at once”.

Another attraction of the union was the bar, which – almost miraculously in 80s Britain – stayed open into the early morning after debates, until the deferential local police finally intervened. By the mid 80s, the union also had a comedy club in its Jazz Cellar, where an undergraduate comedian named Armando Iannucci was learning the art of mocking politicians.

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From the beginning, the union chamber had functioned as a self-conscious nursery of the Commons, dominated by Etonians. In 1831, William Gladstone had made such a powerful anti-reform speech at the union that a friend from Eton alerted his father, the Duke of Newcastle, who offered the 22-year-old prodigy one of the parliamentary pocket boroughs in his gift. In 1853, Edward Bradley watched “beardless gentlemen … juggle the same tricks of rhetoric as their fathers were doing in certain other debates in a certain other House”.

The union’s debating rules were modelled on those of the Commons. Opposing speakers sat facing each other in adversarial formation, and there was the same “telling” of ayes and noes. But unlike the Commons, the union had no real power. Almost the only thing the union president could actually do was stage debates. Naturally, then, it encouraged a focus on rhetoric over policy. The institution perfected the articulacy that enabled aspiring politicians, barristers and columnists to argue any case, whether they believed it or not. In the union, a speaker might prepare one side of a debate, and then on the day suddenly have to switch to the other side to replace an opponent who had dropped out. I suspect it was this rhetorical tradition that prompted Louis MacNeice to write, in 1939:

… I hasten to explain
That having once been to the University of Oxford
You can never really again
Believe anything that anyone says and that of course is an asset
In a world like ours

At speakers’ dinners, 20-year-old union “hacks” – the name given to union politicians – mingled with political power brokers up from London. On one of Churchill’s visits to the union, he remarked to a student (who happened to be the future Tory minister Quintin Hogg): “If you can speak in this country, you can do anything.”

The union was a reason for politically inclined students, especially Tory public schoolboys, to choose Oxford over Cambridge. At Oxford, the union’s ceaseless debates and election campaigns kept the university buzzing with politics. The union elected a president, secretary, treasurer and librarian every eight-week term. The anthropologist Fiona Graham, in her 2005 book Playing at Politics: An Ethnography of the Oxford Union, described some students as “virtually professional politicians, complete with support staff and intricate election strategies and meetings”.

Nearly all campaigning for votes was supposedly banned under the union’s own rule 33. There were occasional attempts to enforce the rule, through tribunals featuring London lawyers, but candidates almost always flouted it.

Union politicians – instantly recognisable because they were the only students who wore suits – were forever traipsing around the colleges tapping up ordinary students with the phrase, “May I count on your vote?” Typically, though, only a few hundred people, many of them union insiders, bothered to cast theirs.

Allied candidates organised themselves into “slates”, the union version of parties but with the ideology usually left out. The slates were illegal, semi-secret, mostly hidden from the electorate, and essential to the whole enterprise. Entirely against the rules, candidates would campaign for their slates: “Vote for me as treasurer, for him as secretary and for her as president.” In other words, cheating was built into the system.

A union career was good practice for Westminster. You learned when an ostensible ally was lying to your face, or when you should be lying to his; when it was safe to break a rule, and when it wasn’t. Michael Heseltine, who had occupied the president’s chair – which sat on a raised dais like a throne – called it “the first step to being prime minister”. Once you had ascended the union, Downing Street felt within your grasp.

Like his role model Churchill, Boris Johnson spent years mastering the ancient craft of public speaking. Eton had offered unmatched opportunities to practise. Johnson ran the school’s Debating Society, and by the time he left was so well-versed in traditional speechmaking that he could perform it as parody. His sister Rachel says: “Eton Debating Society, Polsoc [Eton’s Political Society] all those places honed your oratorical abilities at a young age. They were given a huge headstart, these guys. You’d get incredible heavy-hitters going to address PolSoc and talking to the boys. It’s like playing tennis – you can’t pick up a tennis racket and go and walk on Centre Court and expect to beat Roger Federer. So much of all these things are practice. You learn what lands, and you learn what doesn’t.”

Johnson learned at school to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments. He discovered how to win elections and debates not by boring the audience with detail, but with carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of voice, and ad hominem jibes.

He went up to Oxford in 1983 as a vessel of focused ambition. Ironic about everything else, he was serious about himself. Within his peer group of public schoolboys, he felt like a poor man in a hurry. He started university with three aims, writes Sonia Purnell in Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition: to get a first-class degree, to find a wife (his parents met at Oxford), and to become union president. At university he was always “thinking two decades ahead”, says his Oxford friend Lloyd Evans.

Whereas most students arrived in Oxford barely knowing the union existed, Johnson possessed the savvy of his class: his father had arrived at Oxford in 1959 intending to become union president. Stanley Johnson had failed, but his son was a star. Eton encourages boys to develop their individuality, or at least craft an individual brand, and nobody had done this more fully than Boris Johnson. Simon Veksner, who followed him from their house at Eton to the union, recalls: “Boris’s charisma even then was off the charts, you couldn’t measure it: so funny, warm, charming, self-deprecating. You put on a funny act, based on the Beano and PG Wodehouse. It works, and then that is who you are.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks at the Oxford Union Society in 1991. Listening are Kenneth Clarke and John Patten.
Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks at the Oxford Union Society in 1991. Listening are Kenneth Clarke and John Patten. Photograph: Edward Webb/Alamy

Johnson became the character he played. He turned self-parody into a form of self-promotion. Like many British displays of eccentricity, his shambolic hair and dress were class statements. Much like Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear in Brideshead Revisited, they said: my privileged status is so secure that I am free to defy norms.

Johnson became an “Oxford character”, one of the few undergraduates known beyond his immediate circle. He already possessed the political asset of being all too easy to write about. His girlfriend (later wife) Allegra Mostyn-Owen introduced him to the journalist Tina Brown, who was visiting Oxford to write about the death from a heroin overdose of the upper-class socialite Olivia Channon. Brown reports being traduced by Johnson, who supposedly ghosted an inaccurate attack on her in the Telegraph, under Mostyn-Owen’s byline. Brown claims to have recorded in her contemporaneous diary: “Boris Johnson is an epic shit. I hope he ends badly.”

Toby Young remembers the first time he saw Johnson speak at the union, in October 1983: “The motion was deadly serious – This House Would Reintroduce Capital Punishment – yet almost everything that came out of his mouth provoked gales of laughter. This was no ordinary undergraduate proposing a motion, but a music hall veteran performing a well-rehearsed comic routine. His lack of preparedness seemed less like evidence of his own shortcomings as a debater and more a way of sending up all the other speakers, as well as the pomposity of the proceedings.”

Young, who had come up to Oxford with his head full of Brideshead Revisited (the TV version), admits, “I was completely swept up by the Boris cult.” One young debating hopeful of the day was Frank Luntz, the future American pollster who has become known as a master of political language. (A self-proclaimed “word guy”, Luntz invented the phrase “climate change” for the George W Bush administration so as to make “global warming” seem innocuous – something he now says he regrets.)

He recalls: “Boris was brilliant. He bumbles through the details, but God does he know the substance. I had never met anyone like him, and I still haven’t. Boris gave a speech on the Middle East – it’s the best Middle East speech to this day I’ve ever heard, because he talked about it in terms of a playground, and kids attacking the little kid on the playground. Boris created a brilliant metaphor and then made the argument around that.”

Johnson also benefited from the quality of debating competition, says Luntz: “I’ve never seen a class of more talented people than that class of 1984–86 at the Oxford Union.” Luntz singles out Nick Robinson, Simon Stevens and Michael Gove. He told me: “Any one of those three, when they rose [in a debate] to intervene, the entire chamber shut up, there wasn’t a sound, because everyone knew that when they were recognised, the [previous speaker] was dead, because they were so incisive. Just bring in the ambulance and take out the body, because the three of them could cut you up and show you your heart before you collapsed.”

Anthony Gardner, another American contemporary of Johnson’s, later US ambassador to the EU, was less impressed: “Boris was an accomplished performer in the Oxford Union where a premium was placed on rapier wit rather than any fidelity to the facts. It was a perfect training ground for those planning to be professional amateurs. I recall how many poor American students were skewered during debates when they rather ploddingly read out statistics; albeit accurate and often relevant in their argumentation, they would be jeered by the crowds with cries of ‘boring’ or ‘facts’!”

The undergraduate Johnson quickly became king of all he surveyed. In 1984, a sixth-former named Damian Furniss came to Johnson’s college, Balliol, for his entrance interview. “I was a rural working-class kid with a stammer from a state school which hadn’t prepared me for the experience,” Furniss would recall in 2019.

“My session with the dons was scheduled for first thing after breakfast, meaning I was staying the night and had an evening to kill in the college bar. Johnson was propping up the bar with his coterie of acolytes whose only apparent role in life was to laugh at his jokes. Three years older than me … you’d have expected him to play the ambassador role, welcoming an aspiring member of his college … Instead, his piss-taking was brutal. In the course of the pint I felt obliged to finish he mocked my speech impediment, my accent, my school, my dress sense, my haircut, my background, my father’s work as farm worker and garage proprietor, and my prospects in the scholarship interview I was there for. His only motivation was to amuse his posh boy mates.”

At around the time of this encounter, Johnson was running for union president against the grammar-schoolboy Neil Sherlock. The election dramatised Oxford’s class struggle: toff versus “stain”. Sherlock, later a partner at KPMG and PwC, and briefly a special adviser to the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, was the first in his family to attend university.

He recalls: “Boris Mark 1 was a very conventional Tory, clearly on the right, and had what I would term an Old Etonian entitlement view: ‘I should get the top job because I’m standing for the top job.’ He didn’t have a good sense of what he was going to do with it.”

Mostyn-Owens invited Sherlock to tea and asked him not to stand against “my Boris”. Undeterred, Sherlock campaigned on a platform of “meritocrat versus toff, competence versus incompetence”. Johnson mobilised his public-school networks, but even the 150 or so Etonians up at Oxford at the time proved too small a political base in the new mass union.

Johnson’s candidacy suffered from his Toryism. Conservatives may have been the largest faction within the union, but they were a minority in the university as a whole. Most Oxford dons of the time were anti-Thatcher, too. Denying her an honorary degree in 1985 to protest her cuts to education and research was the university’s seminal political statement of the decade. “Why should we feed the hand that bites us?” asked one don.

In the union election, Sherlock beat Johnson, and came away underwhelmed by his opponent: “The rhetoric, the personality, the wit were rather randomly deployed, beyond getting a laugh.” Sherlock expected the Oxford University Conservative Association’s president Nick Robinson to become the political star, and Johnson to become a “rather good journalist”. Instead, Robinson went on to present the BBC’s Today programme (where in October 2021 he told a verbose Johnson, “Prime minister, stop talking)”.

Johnson’s defeat to Sherlock wounded him, and he learned from it. “It was, quite likely, the making of him as a politician,” writes Purnell. “It taught him the unassailable truth that no one can truly succeed in politics if he relies entirely on his own cadre.”

A 1980s photo showing Robinson, front left, Sherlock, front middle, and Boris Johnson, back right.
Oxford Union Standing Committee photographed in 1985, showing Nick Robinson, front left, Neil Sherlock, front centre, Boris Johnson, back right.
Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

But Etonians tend to get second chances, and a year after his humiliation, he ran for president again. He had absorbed another truth: that personality could trump politics. The second time around, he disguised his Toryism by presenting himself as an unthreatening funny man – “centrist, social democrat, warm and cuddly,” sums up Sherlock. He even managed to forge an alliance with a union hack from Ruskin College, rallying its student body of mostly adult working-class trade unionists behind his slate. Cherwell’s diarist mock-praised “Balliol’s blond bombshell” as “the unstoppable force for socialist [sic] in the Palace of the People debating society (the union to you) … Who can stop our Old Etonian Leninist from stamping his personal hammer and sickle all over the union?” Thrown in among leftists and liberals, Johnson flourished by spoofing himself. “He got away with being a Tory by being funny,” says his sister Rachel. And why not? Since the union president couldn’t make policy even about students’ lives, and Johnson wasn’t very interested in policy anyway, it was all just a power game. Johnson’s second presidential campaign was more competent. Luntz – earning his first ever consulting fee, of £180 – conducted a poll for Johnson in which, as Luntz recalls, almost all the questions were about students’ sexual habits.

He says now: “My mother was so embarrassed because it made the New York Times. She said, ‘How dare you ask people those questions?’” But in fact, the sex was just a cover, says Luntz: “I knew it would be so controversial that no one would think, ‘Actually this was a poll done for a political campaign’.” He slipped in two questions about the union that were intended to identify which candidate Johnson should strike a deal with about trading second-preference votes.

In this second campaign, Johnson also worked his charm beyond his base. Gove, a fresher in 1985, told Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson: “The first time I saw him was in the union bar … He seemed like a kindly, Oxford character, but he was really there like a great basking shark waiting for freshers to swim towards him.” Gove, who campaigned for him, admits: “I was Boris’s stooge.” And then, using almost the same phrase as Toby Young: “I became a votary of the Boris cult.”

With the votaries assuming their natural places around him, Johnson won the presidency. His defeated opponent Mark Carnegie later reflected with the much-quoted: “Sure he’s engaging, but this guy is an absolute fucking killer.”

Johnson’s gift turned out to be for winning office, not doing anything with it. He didn’t make much of his presidency, recalls Tim Hames, a union politician of the time: “The thing was a shambles. He couldn’t organise a term card to save his life. He didn’t have the sort of support mechanism that he realised in later life that he required.”

Once elected, Johnson also dropped his centrist disguise. When Balliol’s Master Anthony Kenny was contacted by a Social Democratic party MP who needed an intern, Kenny replied: “I’ve just the man for you. Bright and witty and with suitable political views. He’s just finished being president of the union, and his name is Boris Johnson.” But when Kenny told Johnson about the job, he laughed: “Master, don’t you know I am a dyed-in-the-wool Tory?”

After graduation, Johnson wrote a telling essay on Oxford politics for his sister’s book The Oxford Myth. He starts, characteristically, by stating the case against the union: “Nothing but a massage-parlour for the egos of the assorted twits, twerps, toffs and misfits that inhabit it … To many undergraduates, the union niffs of the purest, most naked politics, stripped of all issues except personality and ambition … Ordinary punters are frequently discouraged from voting by this thought: are they doing anything else but fattening the CVs of those who get elected?”

His essay tackles the great question: how to set about becoming the next prime minister? Johnson advises student politicians to assemble “a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” to get out the vote. “Lonely girls from the women’s colleges, very often scientists” were particularly useful. Johnson added: “The tragedy of the stooge is that … he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”

Johnson would display that art throughout his political career, much of which would be accompanied by stooges he picked up at Oxford – or by his Eton-and-Oxford Union successor Rees-Mogg. Scanning Cherwell’s diary of 15 November 1985, you find much of Britain’s right wing of the 2020s already in place. Beside the story about the “Old Etonian Leninist” Johnson, another item, headed Who Thinks They’re Who, mocks Johnson’s girlfriend Mostyn-Owen and Young, “Oxford’s answer to the gutter press”. Young has gone on to become a leading voice on the Tory right, most recently campaigning against lockdowns. And the same page introduces readers to an 18-year-old Aberdonian politico named Michael Gove, already gaining fame at Oxford barely a month after his arrival. “Michael conceals his rabidly reactionary political views under a Jane Austen cleric-like exterior,” writes the diarist, who then swerves into uncharacteristic generosity: “The worst thing about this precocious pin-up is that he is, in fact, disgustingly unambitious and talented: watch this space for stories of eventual corruption …”

William Hague when he was president of the Oxford Union.
William Hague when he was president of the Oxford Union. Photograph: Bill Cross/ANL/Shutterstock

Gove grew into a recognisable Oxford character in outsized glasses, speaking with an exaggerated oratorical air even in daily life. When the future Guardian journalist Luke Harding arrived at Oxford in 1987, Gove led his freshers’ tour of the union. “He was basically the same [as in 2021],” recalls Harding. “He had this preternatural self-confidence, this faux-courtly manner. He seemed somewhat parodic, someone who wasn’t going to flourish in the real world.” Yet he has gone on to become the Jeeves to Johnson’s Wooster.

Rees-Mogg wasn’t ancestrally posh. Instead, he “adopted the persona of the institutions he attended”, diagnoses his contemporary Owen Matthews, who believes that this began as a defence mechanism for a thin, bookish child. Arriving at Oxford in 1988, he instantly became an unmissable sight, a rail-thin teenager promenading along Broad Street dressed like a Victorian vicar, in a double-breasted suit with an umbrella. In that time and place, it was about the most unconventional outfit imaginable.

Three-plus decades later, Rees-Mogg is unchanged. Like Johnson and Gove, he has even kept the hairstyle of his Oxford days. When I asked him about his student suit, he said: “Funnily enough, I’m probably wearing exactly the same sort of suit sitting here talking to you now.”

The Tory public schoolboys arrived at Oxford almost fully formed. School had given them the confidence, articulacy and knowhow to bestride the university. They had already constructed cartoon personal brands for themselves, which gave them instant recognition at Oxford.

They didn’t spend university trying on new accents and personas; they already knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. They were climbing the greasy pole before most students had even located it.

This is an edited extract from Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper, published by Profile on 28 April.

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