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30Apr

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper – review

A penetrating analysis of the connections that enabled an incestuous university network to dominate Westminster and give birth to Brexit is perceptive and full of surprises

At a “slave auction” at the Oxford Union in 1987 – an “opportunity to buy your favourite union person for the evening” – there was, according to the university newspaper, frenzied bidding for the services of the kilt-wearing 19-year-old Michael Gove. He went for £35. Gove was known at the time as one of the three pre-eminent orators in the small world of the university debating chamber – the others were Nick Robinson, future BBC political editor, and Simon Stevens, until recently chief executive of NHS England.

The previous year’s union president, Boris Johnson, failed to show up for the slave auction and was sold in absentia. Johnson’s own rhetorical style differed from the self-conscious rigour of his peers. He had learned, Simon Kuper writes, in debates at Eton, “to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments”. He offered instead “carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes”. In this manner, he had won the election to union presidency with the help of various self-described “votaries in the Boris cult”, including Gove and future Covid sceptic Toby Young.

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper is published by Profile (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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