When Tony met Mary met Chris...

Tony Blair dated a future film director at Oxford. But he wasn't her only student love who would hit the political big time. By Marie Woolf and Francis Elliott

Sunday 19 February 2006 01:00

When Tony Blair was a long-haired undergraduate at Oxford, he dated the vivacious Canadian student and future film director Mary Harron, who observed she went out with the future prime minister because he was "good looking in a kind of sweet way, and wasn't at all predatory".

But Tony Blair was not the only budding political leader Ms Harron - a flamboyant undergraduate who went on to direct American Psycho - dated as a carefree student. By remarkable coincidence, she also went out with Chris Huhne, an Oxford contemporary of Blair, who last week was tipped in the polls as the most likely contender to take over from Charles Kennedy as Liberal Democrat leader.

It was all part of a curious series of connecting students, the ramifications of whose relationships were to make an impact on public life decades later. For in Blair's Oxford and linked by love, friendship, music or ambition, was a group of talented young people who would become prime minister, editor of the world's most famous magazine, editor of a national newspaper, a leading film director, a trusted adviser at No 10 Downing Street, a man who could lead the Liberal Democrats and, for tantalising good measure, the girl described as "the most beautiful in Oxford".

The remarkable connections began in the early 1970s, when both Huhne and Blair were studying at Oxford, and as the strains of T-Rex, Slade and Fleetwood Mac wafted across the quads of the colleges.

Tony Blair, who resembled a Led Zeppelin roadie with his flares and long hair, was studying law and singing Rolling Stones covers with his band, the Ugly Rumours.

In the audience of one of his college bar gigs may have been Chris Huhne, who drove an old yellow taxi and dressed head to toe in denim, when not politicking with the university Labour club. He was also writing for the university newspaper Isis, which he went on to edit, bringing him into the milieu of future Fleet Street editors such as Tina Brown, the future editor of Tatler, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Stephen Glover, the columnist and founding editor of The Independent on Sunday, and Patrick Wintour, just appointed political editor of The Guardian, were also in his inner circle of friends.

Both Huhne and Blair had recently left top public schools: Blair was a rebel at Fettes in Edinburgh, known as the Eton of Scotland, and Huhne had studied at Westminster school in London. In an earlier quirk of fate, both men in their gap year joined a London set of public school boys dabbling in the music business. Indeed, both ended up managing the heavy metal band Jaded at different times, without knowing each other.

At Oxford, Huhne and Blair's paths did not cross directly. But between 1972 and 1975 both students were taken with a vivacious Canadian "literary type" that hung out with the trendy music set who partied to bands such as the Grateful Dead. Mary Harron later commented that while at Oxford she was "seeking bohemia, looking for the underground".

Later, with far more street cred than either of her Oxford beaux, she found herself living in a New York film commune, where she quickly joined the East Village's artistic aristocracy and developed an interest in punk music.

Later, she returned to the UK as film critic for the New Statesmen, where one contemporary remembers her as "very clever, very beautiful and very cool". But her film career reached widespread public recognition with the adaptation of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis's satire of Eighties yuppies, a novel critics had regarded as unfilmable.

Yesterday, Harron was at the Berlin film festival, where she is showing her latest film The Notorious Bettie Page, a biopic of one of the first sex icons in America, who became the target of a Senate investigation. She declined to be drawn on her dates with Huhne and Blair. But she said of the former, who is hoping to lead the Lib Dems: "I wish him well and I hope he wins."

At Oxford, it was Chris Huhne and not the future prime minister who was most involved in politics. Tony Blair showed no inclination to get involved in the university Labour club, but Huhne was an active member. Friends remember how he spent most of his time politicking and writing articles. He moved away from the Labour Party when he went to Brussels for The Economist, later becoming a Liberal Democrat MEP and MP. Huhne gained a first in politics, philosophy and economics at Magdalen College while Blair got a second in law at St John's, an all-male college.

Besides Harron, the two students had other friends in common such as Serena "Reen" Pilkington, one of the trendy music set, whom Huhne met through a mutual friend. And there are other connections. Among their contemporaries was Anji Hunter, a friend of Blair who went on to become the Prime Minister's gatekeeper at Downing Street. Hunter went out with Mark Ellen, who played in Blair's band; and a schoolmate of hers, Suzie Parsons - described as the most beautiful girl in Oxford - briefly dated Blair.

Yesterday Huhne, asked about his friendship with Harron, was bashful and slightly embarrassed. "I absolutely do not want to go into my private life before politics," he said.

But Harron, in an interview in 1994, hinted at which boyfriend she may have preferred. "Even before he became an MP and famous, I always thought of Tony as the only 'nice' person that I ever went out with at Oxford," she said.

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