David Cameron supposedly retired early to bed before a raucous evening in 1987 in which the Bullingdon Club ran from the police through the streets of Oxford – according to “When Boris met Dave”, the recent TV programme.
In fact, I can reveal, the youthful Cameron was most definitely at the party. Unlike most of his friends, however, he – along with Boris Johnson and another student called Sebastian Grigg – escaped capture by the forces of law and order.
Mr Cameron’s apparent capacity to rise almost without trace is neatly embodied in the story of his early brush with the law.
The evening had ended with a pot being sent crashing through a restaurant window – sending some of the revellers, including Johnson, the future mayor of London, scurrying for safety while their less fortunate friends earned themselves a night in the cells at Cowley police station.
Many details of the evening have been kept a closely-guarded secret by the group of old friends, who have remained tight-lipped about Cameron’s involvement in the escapade.
But one former Bullingdon member recalled how the arrests took place in Oxford’s botanical gardens where – silhouetted by the lights of the police cars – the students, who had been hiding on the ground, stood up one by one.
At that point, however, Cameron had sprinted off down a side street towards St John’s Lane to make good his escape, according to the person. He said the idea that the future Tory leader was not part of the original escapade was ludicrous.
“A policy of omerta has descended on the Cameron episode. He definitely got completely clean away, so that part of it is true, but the idea that someone just went to bed early! I mean, come on….”
The former member added, ironically: “There were tiers, there was (on one hand) an advanced commitment to smashing up rooms and (on the other) there were just kind of people who went to bed early.”
Cameron has never pretended to have lived a blameless youth. “There was a time at university when lots of people drank too much and fell over, and I plead guilty,” he has said.
Yet unlike most students he seems to have had a precocious sense of how his youthful indiscretions might have an impact on his later ambitions. The episode provide a fascinating insight into Mr Cameron because it suggests that the future leader of the Conservative party was already thinking of his CV.
The old friend says that, in retrospect, it was “extraordinary” that Cameron was so determined not to be caught.
The three students who escaped were not only all Old Etonians but they already had political ambitions, standing for Parliament in 1997.
All lost in the Labour landslide. But in the early hours of that Oxford morning, the trio were “self-aware enough to know they weren’t going to be arrested”, he recalls. “Of course we all knew it was ridiculous but there was a sense of seriousness about some members of the group.”
Years later, it was quite a common joke within that circle that the three who ran for Parliament in 1997 were also the three who ran from the flowerpot incident in 1987.
They were not only the fleetest of foot – “I never knew Boris could run so fast,” the club member said – but arguably the most mature.
”Maybe we always thought we were going to be running the country, certainly that’s how we talked, in terms of which of us would be the one to lead the Conservative party when the time came,” he said.
Johnson has claimed that he was one of those to be arrested, giving vivid details of his supposed night in the cell.
In the early hours before dawn, the mayor has recalled, two policemen came to talk to the youths. “By this stage I am afraid that the Bullingdon club was very far from the proud phalanx of tail-coated twits that had set out for dinner the night before,” said Johnson. “Some of us were beginning to whimper for our mothers.”
In fact Boris was already far from the scene, according to the other former member: “It was part of his (Johnson’s) narrative to be caught… Foresight, isn’t it, of knowing that in 20 years’ time things would have changed so much that a la Bertie Wooster it would have been part of everybody’s CV to have stolen a policeman’s helmet?”
Those from less golden backgrounds disliked the elitism of the Bullingdon Club. But it was viewed by Cameron’s set as a “safe” alternative to more louche institutions such as the Piers Gaveston Society.
The japes tended to involve violence directed at furniture rather than people: ”Compared to them[the Gaveston], the Buller was respectability incarnate,” the source said. “It is a club with a great sense of tradition.”
I put this anecdote to the Tory press office, which refused to comment.