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Sunday 27 September 2015


What can we really expect from a pig but a grunt or two?

Lord Ashcroft might have important revelations, but all we cared about was the dead pig, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'[Cameron] tried for years to play down his background, rather than laughing and changing the subject'

In these dark times, and being a believer in the importance of getting one's laughs where one can, I'm grateful for those provided in the last few weeks by British politics.

The latest from the Labour Party is that Jeremy Corbyn's farming spokeswoman, a campaigning vegan, has said: "Meat is murder… which means, I suppose, milk must be manslaughter."

But it has been the Tories' week for making everyone say: "Good grief!" Livestock was a theme here too, for Cameron was alleged, when at Oxford, to have "inserted a private part of his anatomy' into a dead pig's mouth in an initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston Society.

Gaveston had a brief career as a favourite of King Edward II, until, in 1312, he was murdered by angry barons jealous at his access to the king.

Now, more than 700 years later, his name has popped up as a weapon wielded by another angry baron trying to topple a prime minister who has given him, in his view, insufficient access to power.

In 1977, a group of Oxford undergraduates gigglingly gave Gaveston's name to a new drinking society that they wanted to become a byword for juvenile debauchery.

David Cameron has been pilloried for years by class warriors for his privileged background. There is a photo from 1987 of him and nine other members of the posh Bullingdon Club, lounging on some steps in silly clothes, trying to look sophisticated.

Boris Johnson, who is among them, is incapable of embarrassment. Cameron is not and tried for years to play down his background, rather than laughing and changing the subject.

Anyway, last week, the Daily Mail serialised Call Me Dave, a biography by the billionaire businessman and Tory donor Lord (Michael) Ashton and the journalist Isabel Oakshott. It did so with its customary flair for appealing to our lower instincts.

We were promised "the truth about the shockingly decadent Oxford days of the gifted Bullingdon boy" and, even more arrestingly, "Cameron and obscene act with a dead pig's head!"

The twitterati had a wonderful time. There were pictures of pig celebrities, like Miss Piggy, Babe and Peppa Pig ("#piggate - more victims come forward") and, best of all, that notorious photograph of Ed Miliband appearing to be about to get sick over a bacon sandwich ("Dave did WHAT with this pig?").

There were quite a few other, mostly trivial, allegations or insinuations in the early extracts (Cameron smoked a lot of dope at Oxford, he listened to Supertramp, girls went to his room, someone said that someone once took cocaine at his house).

But all the media cared about was the pig story, about the source for which Isabel Oakshott, in a series of interviews, was shifty. It was, she said, an anonymous MP who said he'd once seen a photograph of the said event, but there was a suggestion that it could have been a case of mistaken identity, no one could find any corroboration, the Gaveston crowd denied that Cameron was ever a member.

He seems at most to have gone once with hundreds of others to their annual ball, and when asked if she believed the story, Oakshott refused to answer and said it was just a joke, she didn't know if it was true and: "We've been very careful in the way we've worded our account."

This cast doubt on the rest of the book and anyway, a quick poll indicated that the majority of the great British public assume that the stupid things you do in your youth should be ignored.

Incredibly, Ashcroft admitted his motivation was that Cameron had reneged on a commitment to give him an important job. The Mail had helpfully given the whole coverage the headline 'Revenge! How PM's snub to billionaire, who funded the Tories for years, sparked the most explosive political book of the decade."

And that's how it's generally seen. For now, the book is discredited before it's even published.

"I've had an interesting week", said Cameron to a business audience. "It's a week in which thousands of trees have died in vain, sales of Supertramp albums have gone through the roof and one man's reputation lies in ruins. I don't think Michael Ashcroft will ever recover."

But the book and the episode brings up important questions, which should be discussed properly when the present nonsense is over.

Ashcroft became a major donor to the Conservative party from the late 1990s and was given a peerage when William Hague was leader on the understanding that he would cease to be a tax exile. When did Cameron know he hadn't done that?

He became deputy chairman of the Conservative party, wielded enormous power and seemed to think he owned it.

What stinks is not the mythical pig but the issue of how political parties are funded. The Tories are in hock to private donors and Labour to trade unions, to whom rewards in honours and access are dished out. The public don't like this, but they don't want parties paid out of public funds either. I'd like to think an unintended consequence of Ascroft's revenge would be a proper public conversation about this important issue.

Pigs might fly.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards