Cameron's cronies: The Bullingdon Club's class of '87

A new biography of the Tory leader has revived interest in the aristocratic club he joined at Oxford. Guy Adams recalls its hedonistic ways - and catches up with the other members

Tuesday 13 February 2007 01:00 GMT

They look to all the world like a toffs' brat pack: 10 of Oxford University's poshest undergraduates preparing to embark on a long night of alcohol-fuelled debauchery.

This was the Bullingdon Club's class of 1987, members of an exclusive dining society whose raison d'être has for more than 150 years been to afford tailcoat-clad aristocrats a termly opportunity to behave very badly indeed.

Today, this picture is at the centre of an extraordinary political storm. For standing proudly at the back is none other than David Cameron. Its publication, in a new biography by The Independent on Sunday journalists Francis Elliott and James Hanning, has coincided with renewed controversy over the Conservative leader's youthful hell-raising. At the weekend, it emerged Cameron was disciplined for smoking cannabis at Eton. He was cautioned by the headmaster, Eric Anderson, but continued taking the drug while studying PPE at Brasenose College.

Mr Cameron has refused to comment, saying merely: "Like many people, I did things when I was young that I should not have done, and that I regret." But the revelations have been seized upon by his enemies - in his own party as well as Labour - as evidence that he is not suitable to be the next prime minister.

So far, so normal in the scandal-a-day hothouse of Westminster. Yet the sight of this photograph plastered across news pages is guaranteed to cause significant embarrassment to the other smartly dressed men in it. Some, such as the flaxen-haired MP and political hand-grenade Boris Johnson, may not mind having a youthful indiscretion so publicly aired.

But what about Ewen Fergusson? He's a partner at the City law firm, Herbert Smith. Or Sebastian Grigg, a partner and managing director at Goldman Sachs? Or Sebastian James, a well-known entrepreneur and son of Lord Northbourne. Yesterday, most of the picture's subjects refused to return calls. But one, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, offered The Independent a fascinating insight into the undergraduates who joined Oxford's most famous drinking club in 1987.

The Buller, as it is known to members, was founded in the 19th century as a hunting and cricket club, but is now devoted to drink and dining. Membership is by invitation only and normally limited to alumni of leading public schools. New recruits are secretly elected before being informed of their good fortune by having their college bedroom invaded by way of a window and methodically "trashed".

The club's notorious dinners typically involve members booking a private dining room (under an assumed name) and drinking themselves silly before destroying it elaborately. They wear royal blue tailcoats with ivory lapels, and - having made merry - pride themselves in politely paying the restaurant's owners compensation in high-denomination banknotes. One former Bullingdon member, the journalist Harry Mount, has recalled "being rolled down a hill by a Hungarian count". Boris Johnson once admitted to "dark deeds involving plastic cones and letterboxes".

Yet the "high jinks" that took place on the night the photo was taken (at Canterbury Quad, Christchurch) are up there with the best of them. At some point after the dinner, the group walked through Oxford when one (thought to be Fergusson, though exact recollections differ) threw a plant pot through the window of a restaurant.

The burglar alarm was activated and police descended with sniffer dogs. Six of the group were collared and spent the night at Cowley police station before being released without charge.

"David Cameron was one of the four people who escaped," a witness says. "If it wasn't for his foresight, he'd have spent a night in the clink. Generally, though, the Bullingdon has been totally misrepresented. We weren't tearaways who did no work. I mean, David Cameron still got his first. Buller was a drinking club. It wasn't about taking drugs. At least not in 1987." And the picture? "A lot of people feel it's frightfully embarrassing. But the more I look at it, the more I start to think it's charming and quaint. We look like schoolchildren. It's like a sort of page out of a high-school yearbook."

Who's who: Cameron and Co.

Sebastian Grigg

The eldest son of Anthony Ulick David Dundas Grigg, the third Baron Altrincham. He was educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, and is a partner at Goldman Sachs. He married Rachel Kelly, a former Times journalist, in 1993, lives in Notting Hill Gate and remains close to Cameron. He tried, and failed, to become Tory MP at the 1997 election.

David Cameron

Attended Eton, before gaining a first class degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Brasenose. Went on to work in the Conservative Research Department, Treasury and Home Office before spending seven years as Head of Corporate Communications at Carlton TV. Elected MP for Witney in 2001, and became Tory leader in 2005.

Ralph Perry-Robinson

Former child actor, who had a walk-on role in the 1984 film Another Country, the film about homosexuality at Eton during the 1930s. Now an antiquarian bookseller, he lives in a village near Salisbury.

Sebastian James

James is the son of Lord Northbourne, an aristocrat and big landowner from Kent. He's an entrepreneur whose former ventures include a DVD rental business, Silverscreen, and a "dotcom", ClassicForum, that was supposed to be a sort of eBay for rare books.

Jonathan Ford

Ford was elected president of the Bullingdon, in 1987, because "he had a mad genius about him". That's why he occupies the centre of the front row. He was educated at Westminster, studied modern history at Oxford, before working as a banker at Morgan Grenfell. Subsequently went into journalism and is now deputy editor of a financial internet site.

Ewen Fergusson

Son of Sir Ewen Fergusson, a former Scottish rugby international who served as ambassador to Paris during Thatcher years and then head of Coutt's, the Queen's bank. Ewen Junior was educated at Rugby then Oriel College, Oxford, and is now a partner in the banking and finance section of the City law firm Herbert Smith. Despite being the "quiet one" of the group, he is thought to have been responsible for the "plant pot" incident.

Matthew Benson

Benson, from a wealthy family of merchant bankers, is a director of Rettie and Co, an Edinburgh-based property company. He graduated in 1988 and spent three years working for Morgan Stanley, before setting-up his own property consultancy. Moved to Edinburgh in the late 1990s, after marrying Lady Lulu Douglas-Hamilton, ex-wife of Lord Patrick Douglas-Hamilton, one of Scotland's top toffs. Their wedding, in Peeblesshire in October 1997, involved a ruined castle being temporarily rebuilt over three floors.

Harry Eastwood

Old Etonian TV producer, who is commercial director for a company called Monkey. After leaving Oxford, he worked in corporate finance at Storehouse, the retail group. Later, Eastwood co-founded Filmbox, a company that aimed to operate vending machines for people to rent videos from. He raised £450,000 to launch the firm, but alas it was soon dissolved.

Boris Johnson

The Old Etonian was a well-known figure of fun at Oxford, becoming president of the Union. Johnson, a student at Balliol College, would have liked to have been president of Buller, but Ford pipped him. Always tipped for stardom (contemporaries still think it will end in tears), he became editor of The Spectator, MP for Henley, and is one of Westminster's most notorious swordsmen.

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