Cambridge Mafia

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The "Cambridge Mafia" is a pejorative term denoting a group of British Conservative Party politicians, front-rank members of their party during the 1980s and 1990s, who attended the University of Cambridge at roughly the same time in the early 1960s. Many of them served as Chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, or President of the Cambridge Union Society, and several of them held both offices. Apart from Leon Brittan, none of them attained great academic distinction at university. The group's contemporaries at Cambridge included satirist and journalist David Frost and comedian Peter Cook (both of whom were active in Footlights at the time), Canadian Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie, historian Angus Calder and Liberal Democrat politician Vince Cable.

The period of prominence of the "Mafia" was something of an aberration for the Conservative Party, which traditionally has closer links to Oxford than Cambridge. Between 1955 and 1990 the party had been led by five consecutive Oxford graduates (Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher). In turn, the "Mafia" has been succeeded by a newer generation of Conservative politicians, again led by Oxford graduates (notably David Cameron, William Hague, George Osborne, Philip Hammond, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson).

The "Mafia" were of relatively modest social background: Norman Fowler, Michael Howard and Kenneth Clarke had attended grammar school rather than fee-paying schools. In his memoirs, Fowler records that during his National Service, although he became a commissioned officer, it was in an ordinary county regiment (in his case, the Essex Regiment) rather than the fashionable Guards or cavalry regiments favoured by young men from elite social backgrounds. (Most members of the "Cambridge Mafia" just missed having to serve, because National Service was abolished in 1960.)

They included:[1]

Name Cambridge Political career
(in Government ; in Opposition ; CONSERVATIVE PARTY POSITION)
Grad. Offices Chancellor Foreign Sec. Home Sec. Other
Norman Fowler
(Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield, 2001)
Trinity Hall
(Economics and Law)
1961 CUCA Chairman Mich. 1960 1998–99 Minister/Sec.S. for Transport 1979–81
Sec.S. for Social Services 1981–87
Sec.S. for Employment 1987–90
Shadow Sec.S. for the Environment, Transport and the Regions 1997-98
Shadow Home Sec. 1998-99
Michael Howard
(Lord Howard of Lympne, 2010)
(Economics and Law)
1962 Union President Easter 1962 2001–03 1997–99 1993–97 Sec.S. for Employment 1990–92
Sec.S. for the Environment 1992–93
Home Sec. 1993–97
Shadow Foreign Sec. 1997–99
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 2001–03
John Gummer
(Lord Deben, 2010)
1962 CUCA Chairman Easter 1961
Union President Lent 1962
Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1989–93
Sec.S. for the Environment 1993–97
Sec.S. for the Environment, Transport and the Regions 1997
Kenneth Clarke Gonville & Caius
1964 CUCA Chairman Mich. 1961
Union President Easter 1963
1993–97 1992–93 Paymaster General 1985–87
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1987–88
Sec.S. for Health 1988–90
Sec.S. for Education & Science 1990–92
Home Sec. 1992–93
Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993–97
Shadow Sec.S. for Business 2009–10
Sec.S. for Justice & Lord Chancellor 2010–12
Minister without Portfolio 2012–2014
Leon Brittan
(Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, 2000)
(English and Law)
1961 Union President Mich. 1960 1983–85 Chief Sec. to the Treasury 1981–83
Sec.S. for the Home Department 1983–85
Sec.S. for Trade & Industry 1985–86
European Commissioner 1989–99
Norman Lamont
(Lord Lamont of Lerwick, 1998)
1965 CUCA Chairman Easter 1963
Union President Lent 1964
1990–93 Financial Sec. to the Treasury 1986–89
Chief Sec. to the Treasury 1989–90
Chancellor of the Exchequer 1990–93
Peter Lilley Clare
(Economics and Physics)
1965 1997–98 Economic Sec. to the Treasury 1987–89
Financial Sec. to the Treasury 1989–90
Sec.S. for Trade & Industry 1990–92
Sec.S. for Social Security 1992–97
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 1997–98

A famous photograph, reproduced in a number of biographies of Clarke and Howard, shows Brittan and Gummer as ushers at Clarke's wedding shortly after his graduation, with Fowler, Howard and Lamont also present.[1]

It should not be assumed that these men all operated as a cohesive unit throughout their careers. Brittan and Fowler—who were slightly older—were Cabinet Ministers in the 1980s, earlier than the others. Howard entered Parliament in 1983, much later than his contemporaries, having first had a successful career as a barrister. In the early part of 1993 Clarke and Howard (both of whom angled publicly for the job—it was given to Clarke) both pushed for the removal of Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Clarke and Howard were rivals for the party leadership in 1997, and almost again in 2003—although in the event Clarke did not stand, and Howard was elected unopposed. (Howard had not been a candidate in the 2001 contest, in which Iain Duncan Smith had defeated Clarke.)

Howard was the only member of the group to become party leader, and none became Prime Minister. By the time the Conservatives returned to government in 2010, Clarke and Lilley were the only members of the group who remained in the House of Commons; Clarke was appointed Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.


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