UK Politics

How easy is it to become a Tory MP without private education?

Chris Monk and Joe Cooke
Image caption Chris Monk (left) and Joe Cooke

Do state school children feel they have any real chance of getting on in the Conservative Party? We followed two ex-comprehensive school pupils who got involved at Oxbridge universities.

"The whole point of the Conservative Association is it gives you a chance to pretend to be a member of the upper classes for an afternoon," says Chris Monk, a second year Cambridge University student, who is dreaming of scaling the heights of Tory politics by joining the association.

But as a product of the state school system, Monk is at odds with many current Conservative cabinet figures and he fears his ordinary upbringing may hinder a potential political career.

The 20-year-old went to a Church of England comprehensive school.

"I'm [now] around the kind of people who have those connections, but my father isn't a socialist academic and I didn't go to Eton.

"You're on a hiding to nothing trying to enter politics without significant connections," he says.

But other Oxbridge students with similar backgrounds do not share his views.

Joe Cooke, a recent Oxford graduate and former President of the Oxford Conservative Association, for one.

He became a Tory at the age of 14, believing it to be a Conservative ideal that "where you are born should not determine where you end up".

Now 22 years old, Cooke appears to be the embodiment of his own philosophy.

"My maternal grandfather is of Romany stock and all four of my grandparents were born into abject poverty, with no indoor toilets or running water," he says.

Born into a working class northern family, Cooke is also the only male in his close family without a criminal record.

"My father went to prison when I was four and I was brought up by a single mother," he says.

Cooke had severe learning disabilities as a child, but got straight As in his A-levels to gain a place at Oxford University.

Immersing himself in Conservative student politics, he was elected president of the prestigious Oxford Conservative Association, a position formerly held by Margaret Thatcher and William Hague.

Cooke says it was actually his humble background that drove him towards Conservative politics.

"I was just struggling to determine my own life, and to go against people's expectations," he says.

"I saw the Conservative Party as the party associated with the individual fighting against everything to be who they are."

Privileged peers

But law student Monk is less certain that you can get far in the party without old-school tie connections.

"I don't have the connections for a safe seat so I'm never going to be able to get to ministerial office because my parents aren't socialist academics," he says.

Like Oxford, Cambridge has traditionally been a breeding ground for future Tory leaders, counting many cabinet ministers and Prime Ministers among its alumni.

Without any family connections to rely on, Monk believes Cambridge's political scene could be his ticket to Westminster.

"In the room I'm pretty confident there are 10 or 15 future Tory MPs and probably at least three cabinet ministers," he tells the BBC while attending a Cambridge social function.

He is determined to do what he thinks necessary to stand out among more privileged peers, actively pursuing an entry-level position on the committee of the Cambridge University Conservative Association.

"It's a junior role involving buying port and procuring cheese," Monk explains, but he hopes it could lead to greater things.

"If I really caught the bug then I'd run for the Chairmanship."

Tory party grandees like Douglas Hurd and Norman Lamont have previously been the Association's Chair.

Monk is hopeful that political success can be achieved by networking with the right people and shining in student debates at The Cambridge Union Society.

"The Union is an excellent place to get noticed by the political people in Cambridge," he says. "Most of the primary party men on the Cambridge right will be around.

"If they say I really think voting for Chris would be a good thing, and I think Chris deserves to get onto committee this term, you know you'll win."

Glass ceiling

Regardless of his lowly political status, Monk had been hopeful of progress through the Cambridge Conservative ranks.

But since talking to the BBC, he has now decided to concentrate on his studies instead of university politics.

And despite the optimism with which he went to Oxford, Cooke's experience caused him to reconsider whether his background was a barrier to success.

He felt he could not tell his Oxford peers about his father's prison sentence.

"I've never been able to tell anybody. I got laughed at for having a Yorkshire accent, let alone for the truth," he says.

"So I changed my accent. I feel like I've betrayed who I am."

But he is still determined to continue in Conservative politics regardless of any possible glass ceiling.

"At no point in my early political life before I went to Oxford did I experience any obstacles or suggestion that my background would be a hindrance.

"Saying that, the national party is still somewhat tilted in favour of those with connections, but if you have the nous and sharp elbows, you can get there."

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