For 33 years, from 1964 to 1997, not one of our Prime Ministers had been educated at an independent, fee-paying school. For a slightly shorter period of 29 years, the same was true of Leaders of the Opposition. When Margaret Thatcher fell in 1990 and there was an election for the succession (then confined to MPs), one of the candidates, Douglas Hurd, suffered grievously from having been to Eton. He was also the son of a Tory MP who had gone to the Lords and the grandson of an MP.
Before 1965, when his party moved to a system of election, he would have been the obvious, perhaps the inevitable choice to emerge from the customary processes of consultation. He would have made a perfectly adequate Prime Minister, maybe a better one than John Major turned out to be. But Mr Major (as he then was) was billed as the boy from Brixton, in this capacity winning the support of Old Etonians such as the late Alan Clark. In desperation, Mr Hurd was forced into playing the game of Lowlier Than Thou, in which he claimed to have been a scholarship-winner whose father was a tenant farmer.
Oddly enough, no comparable assault was mounted on the other candidate, Michael Heseltine, on account of his early education at Shrewsbury. But perhaps it was not so odd after all, because it was enough to point out that it was he who was the assassin. In fact, Mrs Thatcher thought, as she presumably still does, that she was not brought down by him, the parliamentary party or even Sir Geoffrey Howe (who was present at last Thursday's bunfight) but by the Cabinet, whom she accused of "treachery with a smile" and where Mr Kenneth Clarke (who was not among Thursday's guests) played a leading part in telling her she was not going to win and ought to withdraw from the contest.
One way of interpreting recent events in the Conservative Party is to say that only now, after 15 years, has it come to terms with the assassination and is prepared to put the horrid episode into the attic. Certainly, Lady Thatcher herself has kept quiet. She gave her personal support to the last four leaders of her party (though with the unopposed Mr Michael Howard she did not have much choice). None of them turned out to be any good. It would have been understandable if some brave spirit had taken her aside and echoed C R Attlee's words to Harold Laski in 1945: "A period of silence on your part would be welcome."
But the terrible events of 15 years ago have not been forgotten completely. How could they be? Thus Mr Clarke is still blamed for the great fall, even though he did no more and no less than a majority of the Cabinet of that time. And so some Thatcher loyalists are said to be determined to keep him away from the final two. It is not because he has a liking for Europe or sells cigarettes to the Third World (and why, I sometimes wonder, is it considered specially iniquitous to give some comfort to people whose lives otherwise offer scant consolation?). The hostility to Mr Clarke derives from what happened, or is supposed to have happened, a whole 15 years ago.
You do not have to be Sir Isaac Newton to work out that, of four candidates, six pairings are possible: Cameron-Clarke, Cameron-Davis, Cameron-Fox, Clarke-Davis, Clarke-Fox and Davis-Fox. It is theoretically possible for the pairing to be produced in one ballot, if the total vote of the bottom two is less than the vote obtained by the second-placed candidate. But I do not suppose this is going to happen. It is more likely that the first ballot on Tuesday will result in one dropout and that there will be a second ballot among three on Thursday.
The election has possessed several curious features. Dr Liam Fox seems to have produced a girlfriend specially for the occasion. Then there is the nature of Mr David Davis's support. It is hardly red in tooth and claw. Mr Damian Green is - or, at any rate, used to be - one of the favourite lunchtime companions of the more enlightened political correspondents, almost a successor to Chris Patten. One can only conclude that he has been disappointed by Mr Howard or even by Mr Howard's predecessors.
Then there is Mr David Willetts. What is he doing within Mr Davis's stockade? The trouble seems to lie in Mr George Osborne, Mr Cameron's friend and supporter, whom Mr Howard made Shadow Chancellor. Mr Willetts believes, with some justification, that the post should have gone to him instead. Nor was this simply a matter of pique or of thwarted ambition. That newest Tory nostrum, the flat-rate tax, was involved as well. Mr Willetts believes this is a complicated matter, not lightly to be trifled with. Mr Osborne has a simpler approach. In making it, he managed to confuse Latvia with Lithuania, much to the scorn of Mr Willetts.
But all this becomes insignificant compared to the question of whether, in his hot youth, Mr Cameron took drugs and, in particular, whether he took cocaine. It seems to have first arisen during a meeting organised in Blackpool by what we old journalists have been brought up to call Another Sunday Newspaper. Mr Cameron refused to answer one way or the other, as he still does. Frustrated, Fleet Street's Finest are moving their tanks up the line.
It would be refreshing if Mr Cameron, or one of the other candidates, said that drugs ought to be a matter for the medical and pharmaceutical professions and not for the criminal law - and that what anyone chose to do to his or her body's biochemistry was a personal matter. This is about as likely as the prospect that one of the candidates will promise to oppose Mr Blair's latest endeavours to deprive of us of our liberties. The most likely person to do this is Mr Clarke. Alas, in the climate of priggish repression created by Mr Blair, it provides one more reason why he may once again fail to win the prize.Reuse content