David Cameron was his usual assured self on this morning’s Today programme until Evan Davis asked him the “Bullingdon question”. Wasn’t the infamous Oxford club (whose idea of a good night out was characterised by Evelyn Waugh as beating a fox to death with champagne bottles) just like the gangs that rioted? An audibly uncomfortable Cameron replied: “we all do stupid things when we’re young – and we should learn the lessons.” It’s notable that Cameron used the same formulation during the 2005 Tory leadership election when he was asked about rumours of past drug use. Indeed, he previously responded to a question about that Bullingdon Club photo by similarly claiming: “we do things when we’re young and we deeply regret them”. It sounded like an admission of guilt then and it sounds like an admission of guilt now.
But Cameron refused to accept that there was any comparison to be made between the behaviour of the club’s members and the rioters. The riots, he said, were “very well organised”, which rather invites the response: is disorganised violence acceptable? Cameron’s claim that he never saw a restaurant smashed up will also be challenged by some of his university contemporaries. But it was his assertion that “we all do stupid things when we’re young” (in fact, some will reply, not all of us) that will prove most damaging. As Cameron said, we learn with age. Why then hand down the most draconian sentences possible? Cameron was in danger of appearing to suggest that it was one rule for the Oxford elite and another for the rest of the society.
This is one subject that the PM would rather never be asked about again. But after his faltering response today, it is certain that he will be.
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