Final fanfare for the common men

Andrew Grice: The exit of Alan Johnson and Andy Coulson makes Westminster even posher than it already was.

The dramatic resignations of Andy Coulson from Downing Street and Alan Johnson from the Shadow Cabinet have sparked a new debate about the absence of people from working-class backgrounds in frontline politics.

Mr Coulson, brought up in a council house in Essex, joined his local newspaper at 18 rather than go to university. Later he became editor of the News of the World. As No 10's director of communications he was a vital antidote to the image of "two posh boys" which has worried some Tories since David Cameron became leader in 2005 with George Osborne's backing. Cameron allies insist that his new director of communications will not have to be "another Andy Coulson" – they know they may not find one. His background was a counterbalance to Cameron's other most influential aide, Steve Hilton. Mr Cameron insists that what matters is "not where you come from, but where you want to take the country". But after Nick Clegg's appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, there are three public school and Oxbridge-educated figures at the top of the Coalition Government.

Today's political elite appears to reverse a recent trend. Between 1964 and 1997, every British Prime Minister had gone to a grammar school. In 2007, Gordon Brown became the first university-educated occupant of No 10 not to have gone to Oxbridge. It seemed that a new meritocracy had arrived. Now, it seems, the old public school order is reasserting itself.

Half the Cabinet and more than 100 MPs were Oxford-educated. A third of the 650 MPs, and two thirds of serving Tory and Liberal Democrat ministers, went to private school, including eight Old Etonians, led by Mr Cameron. There is little for Labour to crow about. A third of Labour's frontbench spokesmen went to Oxbridge, including all five runners in last year's party leadership race. Now Labour has lost the services of Mr Johnson, who was brought up by his sister in a council house, became a postman and rose to become leader of the Union of Communication Workers.

"It is not just an issue for the Tories. Alan Johnson's departure shows that it also a serious problem for us," one Labour frontbencher admitted yesterday. "I am not saying we should go back to the days of trade union placemen becoming MPs, but we do need to ensure that more people from ordinary backgrounds get into parliament."

Mr Johnson's successor, Ed Balls, was privately educated at Nottingham High School before going to Oxford. His elevation to the job highlights another trend: the rise of a political class with little experience outside the political game.

Like his leader Ed Miliband, Mr Balls was an aide to Mr Brown for several years before finding a Commons seat and climbing the ministerial ladder. After Oxford, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne both served their apprenticeships in the Conservative Research Department. Although Mr Cameron spent seven years as a public relations officer for Carlton Communications, he would have entered Parliament sooner if he had won the first seat he fought in Stafford in 1997.

Trend-spotters detect another group – an "intellectual political class" cutting across party boundaries. Mr Cameron is the first Tory Prime Minister to get a first-class degree at Oxford since Sir Robert Peel more than 200 years ago. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, went to a Rotherham comprehensive but got a first at Oxford. Ed Miliband and his brother David, the former Foreign Secretary, were both educated at Haverstock Comprehensive School in north London, but took a masters degree at the London School of Economics and first at Oxford respectively.

David Davis, the Tory former shadow Home Secretary, who was raised by a single mother in a council house, sees the departure of Mr Coulson and Mr Johnson as part of a worrying trend, and is concerned about the implications for the Tories of Mr Coulson's resignation.

Mr Davis said Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne do not know what it was like to "scrape for the last penny" at the end of the week. "One of the criticisms that is often levelled at them [the Tory leadership] is that they don't have a sense of what a large part of the country, the poorer part of the country, what their views and priorities are – and Andy Coulson always brought that to the table," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"He was somebody who brought that gritty, slightly tough, but necessary mindset to the Conservative leadership's thinking." In a timely BBC 2 programme tomorrow night, Posh and Posher – Why Public School Boys Run Britain the journalist Andrew Neil asks whether the rise of Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg symbolises the decline of social mobility in British politics. Mr Neil, a grammar school boy from a working-class family in Paisley who became editor of The Sunday Times at the age of 34, believes his generation had a route to success that is now blocked. Britain's post-war political meritocracy came to an end, he concludes, with the abolition of the grammar schools.

Public-schooled, white and male

* 67 per cent of the current Cabinet attended top private schools, compared with just 7 per cent of the total population.

* Five have fathers who were MPs, while two more married the daughters of Conservative cabinet ministers.

* Three, including the Prime Minister, are former Etonians. Of the entire 119 members of the Government, a tenth are also from Eton.

* Two-thirds of ministers were educated partly or entirely outside the mainstream state school system, and one in five went to one of the old established top public schools.

* If Britain looked like its Government, about four million adults would have gone to Eton, there would be no black people, and for every one woman there would be six men.

* 52 per cent of Liberal Democrat ministers went to state schools, compared with 35 per cent of Tories. One hundred per cent of Liberal Democrat ministers are white.

* Only one of the six ministers in the Education Department, Tim Loughton, was educated entirely within the state sector – although the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove's private education at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen was funded through a scholarship.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleBenjamin Netanyahu trolled by group promoting two-state solution
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Controller

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is a busy and varied role w...

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teacher require...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style