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UK Politics

Final fanfare for the common men

<b>Andrew Grice:</b> 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.