John Walsh: ‘Bullingdon Club high jinks keep coming back to haunt the Tories’

Tales of the City
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I enjoy tales about well-bred chaps behaving badly. I treasure the story of a dinner in a Pall Mall club in 1905, during which the august members at the long tables – spurred by some trivial and wholly forgotten dispute – began throwing bread rolls at each other. As the food fight escalated, one of the dining-room’s 18th-century windows was broken by a poorly-aimed cruet. When the club secretary remonstrated, like a housemaster upbraiding the rowdy fifth form, a bearded clubman assured him, “It’s nothing to do with me. I’ve thrown nothing stronger than jelly all evening.”

It’s traditional for posh, violent dimwits to refuse to take any blame. In Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, the Bollinger Club, who smash the windows of Scone College, Oxford, and de-bag Paul Pennyfeather in the quad, get off with a small fine, while Paul takes the blame and is kicked out. I expect the rowing-club rowdies who used to invade Oscar Wilde’s Oxford rooms in the 1870s, to smash up his famous blue china, knew they were part of literary history but never came forward to claim it. So it’s interesting to hear the responses from David Cameron and Boris Johnson to the nation’s current interest in their membership of the Bullingdon Club in the 1980s.

Johnson was unembarrassed about his exploits, or “events that might charitably be described as high jinks”, as he calls them. What annoys him is the suggestion that he did not wind up in the cells for a night. A TV programme tomorrow night will re-create the evening of drunken revelry that culminated in broken glass and police sirens – but some nasty people have suggested it’s all fabrication. “Those who say I was not in the cells are mistaken,” he told the Sunday papers. How dare you, sir! How dare you suggest that I did not spend several hours in the nick? I shall sue!

David Cameron, by contrast, writhes with embarrassment about the photograph of him and Boris posing languidly with the Club on some Oxford college steps. “We do things when we are young that we deeply regret,” he told Andrew Marr. But you just know it isn’t membership of the club he regrets. It’s the photograph – the Man-of-Destiny pose, the daintily blow-dried hair, and most of all, those clothes. The cut-away tailcoat with white lapels, the six silver buttons, the wing-collared dicky-bow, the low-slung waistcoat… it all shouts money, bespoke tailoring and a rich stockbroker daddy, none

of which he likes to wave in the nation’s faces. So his answer to Andrew Marr’s question, “What’s the personal wealth of you and your wife?” was a cautious, “Our main asset is the house that we own in London…”

We have here the spectacle of two of the nation’s top Tories strenuously denying they are a) completely respectable, and b) quite rich. It doesn’t seem too long ago that Tory MPs would’ve longed to be taken as either (or both). I look forward to more revelations at the party conference this week: Don’t You Dare Call Me A Teetotaller, Warns Michael Gove. Christian Virtues? Include Me Out Says Liam Fox. Lend Me A Fiver, I’m Skint, Says Lord Strathclyde.


Waitrose, the supermarket chain, have pulled their advertisements from the Fox News channel in America (carried here by Sky TV) because they disapprove of the Fox presenter Glenn Beck, who called President Obama a racist. “We take the placement of our ads in individual programmes very seriously,” said a customer services spokesman, “ensuring the content of these programmes is deemed appropriate for a brand with our values.” Waitrose? With its own-brand organic coffee beans and commitment to seasonality? When did they start having “values” and standing up for what they believe in? It got me thinking: Waitrose – they’re clearly in favour of free markets, keen on Europe (especially in the cheese section), big on health (see their policy on organic bananas), tough on grime (especially Mr Muscle) and they believe in change (the Beckenham branch changed its flipping aisle layout so much, I used to get horribly lost). They’re probably a little morally hazy about binge drinking, but otherwise, they’re politically admirable. Can’t we get them to run the country? I want to hear their top checkout girl, next summer, rally the nation with the words, “Go back to your supermarkets – and prepare to govern.”