Today
Wed 29 September 2021

With the Government showing itself to be out of touch over anti-racism and football, Mic Wright looks at the gilded age Oxford culture around the current incumbent at Number 10

ITV’s 1981 mini-series adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has a lot to answer for – including the public personas of most of Britain’s most famous politicians.

Boris Johnson went up to Oxford University’s Balliol College in 1983, with a scholarship to study classics. He was helped in his second attempt at being elected Oxford Union President by his future Cabinet colleague and ongoing frenemy Michael Gove (who was two years below him at Lady Margaret Hall) and the future NHS chief executive Simon Stevens — now Sir Simon Stevens — who went up to Balliol College in 1985.

Petronella Wyatt (briefly of Worcester College in 1986, and then University College London) is a former Spectator colleague of Johnson’s who had an affair with him while he was the magazine’s editor.

In a recent Spectator diary piece, she wrote waspishly of Carrie Johnson, the mistress he married. Wyatt stated that she is “intrigued by [her] choice of clothes; a mixture of Stepford wife and human sacrifice. She did recently don a blue trouser suit, but she rather resembled one of the victims of Carousel in Logan’s Run”.

Boris Johnson is an authoritarian when it comes to others and a libertine where he and his friends are concerned.

Earlier in the piece, Wyatt – the daughter of the late Woodrow Wyatt (of Worcester College, 1936), a Labour MP turned advisor to Margaret Thatcher who railed against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in his laughably named News of the World column ‘The Voice of Reason’ – notes that she has known Michael Gove since she was 21. But it is her knowledge of another famous Oxford graduate – Ghislaine Maxwell (of Balliol College, 1983) – which made for the article’s most striking passage.

“Netflix has hired me as a consultant on a documentary about Ghislaine Maxwell,” she wrote with curious pride. “I must be one of the few people who do not regard her as having the vices of Lady Macbeth, Countess Báthory and Madame Claude combined.”

She went on to claim that a “tin-eared” Maxwell invited one of her married friends to meet Bill Clinton in a hotel suite before getting to the true depths of moral bankruptcy: 

“Back in the 1990s, I used to see teenage girls with eyes the colour of verveine at some of the extravagant parties I was invited to. Looking back, I have a fair idea of why they were there. But it never occurred to me to ask their ages or protest their presence. Was I complicit?”

I doubt Wyatt really wants an answer to her self-serving rhetorical question, but mine would be: yes, you were complicit.

The fact that the Spectator felt this confession, coupled with breezy excuses for a woman who faces multiple charges related to the sexual exploitation of children, was absolutely fine to print says a lot about the long Brideshead mentality of the elite that came up in the yuppie indulgence of the 1980s. 


Buller! Buller! Buller!

When Boris Johnson stood in and won the contest to become leader of the Conservative Party, four of his five rivals who survived the first round of voting studied at Oxford – Gove, Jeremy Hunt (of Magdalen College, 1984), Dominic Raab (of Lady Margaret Hall, 1993), and Rory Stewart (of Balliol College, 1992).

The final clash came down to Johnson versus Hunt; 1986’s President of the Oxford Union facing off against 1987’s President of the Oxford University Conservative Association.  

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh writes of Rex Mottram – the Canadian social climber said to have been based, in part, on the press baron and politician Lord Beaverbrook – that “he wasn’t a complete human being at all… something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole”.

In our own ghastly age, it feels as though we are ruled over by a political class filled with Rex Mottrams. And chief among them is Boris Johnson, a bumptious façade wrapped around a cynical centre.

When Waugh writes about a man with “a strange sort of charm, as if completely unaware of his essential vulgarity and gaucheness… [whose] life has taught him that there is very little that money and connections to the right people can’t fix”, he could easily be describing Johnson – the Prime Minister who looked to well-heeled donors to pay for his decorating bill, casually took a luxury holiday on another big donor’s dime, and is intensely relaxed about dishing out contracts to individuals with exceedingly close connections to the Conservative Party.

Johnson is an authoritarian when it comes to others and a libertine where he and his friends are concerned. Decades after he dived into Bullingdon Club debauchery, he could still be found approaching other members chanting “Buller! Buller! Buller!” – his inner undergraduate always just beneath the surface, waiting to burst out. 

As a young woman, Wyatt didn’t stick it out in the world of Oxbridge oafs, claiming – somewhat implausibly – that she fled after weeks because she was bullied for being the daughter of a Conservative and a Conservative herself. But she was born into it. And her clumsily put Spectator confessions spring from a mindset they share. They are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “careless people”, as described in The Great Gatsby, wrapped up in the particularly British style of Brideshead and the Bullingdon. 

Wyatt can find it in herself to be forgiving toward her contemporary Ghislaine because her outsider father, who endowed a Robert Maxwell Fellowship in politics at Balliol, ensured that his daughter was also ‘one of them’. And those young girls who Wyatt saw at parties but chose to ignore, the implications of their attendance barely dancing at the back of her mind, were disposable – there to be broken by the ‘careless people’; grist to the machinations of the Mottrams who rule over us. 

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