University: St John’s College, Oxford, BA Jurisprudence
Position: Labour Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007
Student politics: Blair says in his autobiography, My Journey, that he “took virtually no part” in student politics. He was not a member of the famous debating society Oxford Union, let alone leader of it, unlike super-motivated rival William Hague. Blair also had very little to do with the Labour Club. He believes that his lack of involvement in party when he was young meant that he was not tied by loyalty to some of the traditional ideals of Labour, which he brushed aside when rebranding the party as “New Labour”.
Instead he was influenced by fellow students, including mature student Peter Thomson, an Anglican priest. He honed his performance skills by singing and playing in the rock band Ugly Rumours and rather intriguingly, dating the future American Psycho film director Mary Harron.
Lesson learned: Learn how to perform on stage. It could prove useful.
University: Brasenose College, Oxford, first in BA PPE
Position: The Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party
Student politics: Cameron is not famed for participating in any kind of student political activity; far more emphasis has been placed on his membership of that notorious drinking society for toffs, the Bullingdon Club. His university friend James Delingpole said he was a “normal 19-year-old” who was “likeable and fun, with not an ounce of (apparent) political ambition in his bones”.
James believes that this was not an act: “Dave is an operator; of that there’s no doubt. But I don’t believe even he is capable of quite such dissimulation, cynicism and ruthless ambition”. However, Cameron had a reputation as a very gifted political student, supported by his first.
During his gap year, Cameron was a researcher for his godfather, Tim Rathborne, Conservative MP for Lewes. After graduating, he worked for the Conservative Research Department, alongside George Osborne.
Lesson learned: It could be that it’s fine just to have a good time at university - but then we don’t all have an MP for a godfather…
University: LSE, MSc Economics; Corpus Christi College, Oxford, BA PPE, 2:1
Position: The leader of the Labour Party since September 2010
Student politics: Miliband was chair of Oxford University Labour Committee, having been introduced to left-wing politics by his Marxist academic father, Ralph. However, he said to The Guardian, "I wasn't particularly bookish; what really got me going was student activism, and mobilising people. It was quite a hard thing to recognise if you come from an academic family, but… politics always motivated me more than academia."
In his first year, Miliband was JCR rep for Corpus Christi, representing the interests of students. He told the Guardian that "my best four weeks at university were when we had a rent dispute with the college". Yet, when a nine per cent rent increase for students was proposed in June 2010, he would not support the students of his former college. Ed said that although “it’s very, very important to hear the students’ voice… I’m not going to get directly involved with your dispute with the college”.
Lesson learned: Ed seems to be saying don’t worry about academia? But he does still have a very prestigious Masters. It’s all bit confusing, really.
University: Robinson College, Cambridge. BA Archaeology and Anthropology
Position: Leader of the Liberal Democrats since 2007 and Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government
Student politics: Clegg boasts an impressively well rounded university CV. He was involved with a variety of non-political societies, including leading his college tennis team, campaigning for human rights organisation Survival International and appearing in a play directed by future Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.
Clegg’s name was found on a roll of Cambridge’s Conservative association, but he asserted that "I have absolutely no recollection of that whatsoever”.
On an exchange trip to Germany aged 16, Clegg and a friend set fire to “the leading collection of cacti in Germany” while drunk.
In an interview with Robinson College’s magazine, Clegg said he disliked student politics.
”I remember seeing all these young men and women braying at each other… I had more questions than answers in my student days so… I was repelled, by the idea of shrill tribal student politics.”
Lesson learned: Try everything once. Unless it involves strong drink and lit matches.
University: Exeter, PhD English Literature; Kansas University, Scholarship; Exeter, BA English Literature
Position: The first Green Party MP, elected by Brighton Pavilion Constituency in 2010
Student politics: Lucas has been an activist for various causes from a young age. As an undergraduate, she was involved with the CND, and often visited the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp, a female protest camp situated around the Greenham Common RAF Base, protesting against the nuclear Cruise Missiles which were stored there.
Lucas began working for the fledgling Green Party whilst she was still a postgraduate student. The small size of the party during the 1980s meant that she was able to be their national press officer from 1987-9 and co-chair in 1989-90.
Lucas’ approach to her education was just as individual as her approach to politics; she decided to study further and consider her options, rather than rushing into a career. Lucas first gained a scholarship to the University of Kansas for a year, then took a diploma in journalism and finally completed a PhD in Elizabethan Literature, before becoming a press officer for Oxfam.
Lesson Learned: Pick a shiny, new political party, and you too can be their national press officer.
University: Edinburgh, PhD History; MA History
Position: Prime Minister from 2007-10
Student politics: Brown’s University career was unexpectedly glamorous - a far cry from the dour persona we know today. He was a brilliant student who entered university at 16, eventually gaining a PhD on the history of the Labour Party in Scotland. At 20, he was controversially elected as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, who chaired meetings of the University Court. His promoters were called the “Brown Sugars”- miniskirt wearing female students.
It is thought that Prince Philip influenced the university court to select him, because Brown’s girlfriend was his goddaughter, Princess Margarita of Romania. Whether or not this is the case, being elected as Lord Rector was still an impressive achievement for a 20-year-old, and Brown’s biographer Tom Bowers asserts that this created him many “vengeful enemies” on the faculty who refused him a full lectureship, despite his ability.
Lesson learned: Only date somebody if they are a member of a royal family.
University: Magdalen College, Oxford. 2:1, BA History
Position: Chancellor of the Exchequer since 2010 for the coalition government
Student politics: George (born Gideon) earned a prestigious scholarship known as a demyship to Magdalen College. Due to his status as a member of the present Conservative inner-circle, it will doubtless come as a great shock to learn that George was another member of the Bullingdon Club –although, it is rumoured, one who was called “Oik” because he hadn’t gone to Eton. There is little evidence of great forays into student politics.
However, Osborne was editor of the prestigious university magazine Isis. His most revolutionary step was an edition of the magazine with cannabis leaves on the front cover, and the claim that “for the first time in the history of the magazine, Isis has been printed on Hemp paper.” On closer inspection, the BBC noted “this turned out to be just two pages in the middle”.
Lesson learned: Judging by the hemp paper incident, how to make claims that (literally) won’t stand up to the paper they’re written on.
Position: The Leader UKIP, famous for his “outspokenness”
University: Farage is unusual because he did not attend university, instead going straight from prestigious private boys’ school Dulwich College into the city as a commodities trader.
Nigel Farage is quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying that the ribald atmosphere of the city helped to prepare him for politics: ‘Whatever mickey-taking you get on programmes like Have I Got News For You it is as nothing compared to leaving public school and going to work on the London Metal Exchange. There it was vicious, all day every day.’
Lesson Learned: PPE isn’t quite the only route to party leadership.
University: University of Aberdeen BA; University of Edinburgh Social Administration MA; Goldsmiths, Social Administration, qualifying as a psychiatric social worker
Position: Several positions in Tony Blar’s Labour government cabinet, including Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister for Women and Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
Jowell was not involved in student politics at Goldsmith’s in London, but claims she was politically active in her local community in Hampstead. She’s unusual for having a degree that helped her to be in touch with the needs of underprivileged people, as she worked first as social worker specialising in psychiatric cases (not a job for the faint-hearted) and later became assistant director of the mental health charity Mind.
Jowell gives this advice to future politicians on the Goldsmith’s website “Don’t go into politics too young. Get out and do things and score achievements in the real world before you become a politician… don’t go straight into politics from school or university.”
Lesson learned: Listen up, Wiliam Hague…
University: Brasenose College, Oxford, BA Classics
Position: Currently in his second term as Mayor of London, having defeated former Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2008 and 2012
Student politics: Johnson is yet another member of that famous debating society and political breeding ground, the Oxford Union. He was elected president on his second attempt. This campaign is said to have revealed an early ruthlessness, as he switched allegiance from the Conservatives to the fashionable left-wing Socialist Democratic party, supposedly to win votes. He is also a well-known former member of the Bullingdon Club, photographed alongside David Cameron.
Lesson learned: Do whatever you like, but make sure you have disarmingly floppy hair to hide behind.
University: Newnham College, Cambridge, BA History
Position: Abbott was elected in 1987 as Britain’s first black female MP
Student politics: Abbott has not made public whether she was involved in any form of student politics. She has said that she did not find life at Cambridge easy. When interviewed by the Cambridge University website, she said “I had a huge sense of achievement just by setting foot in Cambridge. But I am not one of those people who says Cambridge were the best years of my life…Going to Cambridge gave me that sense that obstacles were there to be overcome. It also gave me more confidence.”
Lesson: Just tough it out.
University: Magdalen College, Oxford, first in PPE
Position: The youngest leader of the Conservatives since William Pitt, from 1997 to 2001
Student politics: Hague’s ambition was clear at a very young age. Hague first came to national prominence at the age of 16, when he gave a speech at the 1977 Conservative National Conference. He was, unsurprisingly, the president of the Oxford University Conservative Association and suffered a very Westminster-type scandal, when he was accused of “electoral malpractice”. Hague then became president of the Oxford Union, an established route into politics. His predecessor Mike Thompson said that “like a talented sportsman, he made it all look so easy”. Hague first ran as a parliamentary candidate at the precocious age of 26.
Whilst he was president of the Oxford Union, Hague said: "I've been told I can't be president and hope to get a First. That was too much of a temptation”. (He did, of course, get a first)
Lesson learned: Be obsessed. Continue to being obsessed. Combine this with brilliant intellect and networking.
University: Leeds, BA Law
Position: Pretty much everything apart from the top job: Foreign Secretary, 1997-2001, Foreign Secretary, 2001-6, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons 2006-7, all the while maintaining a startling resemblance to the Demon Headmaster.
Student politics: Straw’s student record shows that it was probably his dedication, talent and cunning rather than a supernatural advantage which helped him into politics. He began as chair of the Leeds University Labour Society in 1966, which then changed its name to the Leeds University Socialist Society. Next, Straw persuaded the Socialist, Communist and Liberal Parties to unite to vote him president of Leeds University Union. Finally, he went for the big one: the President of the National Union of Students, the NUS. He was finally elected President of the NUS in 1969, after two attempts in 1967 and 1968.
However, in 2000, Leeds University Union passed a motion revoking Straw’s life membership, barring him from the union building and called for the university to revoke Straw’s honorary degree because they disagreed with his part in anti-terrorism, drug laws and tuition fees legislation. Straw called this a “juvenile gesture”, saying “in Stalinist fashion I was airbrushed out of the record.” His life membership was reinstated by referendum in 2007.
Lesson learned: If you want to be a hardcore Labour politician, get in with the unions young.
University: St Hilda’s College, Oxford, BA Geography
Position: Home Secretary and former minister for Women and Equality, 2010-12
Student politics: May reportedly wanted to be an MP from the age of 12. An acquaintance from Oxford said that she used to introduce herself to people by saying: “Hello, my name is Theresa Brasier (her maiden name) and one day I am going to be Prime Minister”. This may be a malicious acquaintance, as it’s pretty hard to believe that anybody would say that without irony.
May was introduced to her husband Philip May by the late future Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. She said "I hate to say this, but it was at an Oxford University Conservative Association disco… this is wild stuff. He was a good debater and Benazir had got to know him through that."
Lesson Learned: Conservative Association discos are the place to be?