Prime minister embarrassed when asked if there was any parallel between rioters and members of notorious Oxford club
David Cameron has played down suggestions that there was a similarity between those involved in the summer riots and Oxford students like him who belonged to the notorious Bullingdon Club.
In his interview on the Today programme, he seemed embarrassed when Evan Davis, the presenter, suggested that there was a parallel between the rioters and the Bullingdon crowd famed for their drunken, loutish antics.
The prime minister insisted he had never witnessed members of the Bullingdon break windows or smash up restaurants when he was a student. This contradicts claims that have been made about Cameron being present when Bullingdon members smashed a restaurant window in 1987.
Cameron has never denied being a member of the Bullingdon Club, but his links to an organisation synonymous with upper-class university hooliganism has always been a public relations nightmare for him and there have been attempts to block the reproduction of a photograph showing Cameron and fellow Bullingdon member Boris Johnson posing in tails for the annual Bullingdon photograph.
After the riots Cameron said that the offenders deserved to be punished firmly. But some commentators claimed that this was hypocritical given that students involved in Bullingdon misdemeanours tended to get off lightly.
Asked if there was any likeness between the rioters and members of the Bullingdon Club, Cameron replied: “I think we all do stupid things when we are young and we should learn the lessons.”
Davis then asked Cameron if, when he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, he had ever witnessed people throwing things through windows or smashing up restaurants, Cameron replied: “No, I didn’t.”
Then he quickly added: “As I say, we all do stupid things when we’re young. And I think that’s clear. But I think what we saw in terms of the riots was actually very well organised, in many cases, looting and stealing and thieving.”
Davis seemed to be referring to an incident that occurred in 1987, when a Bullingdon Club party in an Oxford restaurant ended up with a pot being thrown through a window. According to Francis Elliott, Cameron’s biographer, Cameron had left by the time this happened, although Johnson was one of the members subsequently arrested and detained overnight by the police.
But last year the Financial Times’s Westminster blog published an interview with an unnamed former member of the club who said that this “official” account of the evening was wrong, and that Cameron had been present.
“A policy of omerta has descended on the Cameron episode. He definitely got completely clean away, so that part of it is true, but the idea that someone just went to bed early! I mean, come on,” said the source, who also said that, even though Johnson now claims to have been one of those arrested, Johnson was actually one of those who got away from the police on the night.
Four years ago the Independent also published an account of this incident saying that, while six of the students were arrested and held overnight in the cells before being released without being charged, Cameron was one of four people who escaped. An unnamed witness told the paper: “If it wasn’t for his foresight, he’d have spent a night in the clink.”
Pointing to the discrepancy between the two accounts, the Labour MP John Mann said after Cameron’s Today programme interview that the prime minister should “start admitting what he did and start taking responsibility for what he shrugs off as youthful indiscretions”.
Mann went on: “If we are to get more responsibility throughout our society following the riots then the prime minister should set an example.”
Cameron’s youthful embarrassments do not just relate to his time at Oxford. According to Elliott’s biography, Cameron was caught and punished when was a pupil at Eton for using cannabis.
Cameron has never denied this, although he has not discussed it publicly either. Instead he has argued that he does not have to answer questions about what happened in his private life before he became a public figure.