The Conservatives continue to be the most Oxbridge-dominated partyNick James for Varsity

During the 1980s and 1990s, the halls of Westminster were held captive by a mafia. This mafia sat on the front row of the green leather benches where they wielded enough influence to determine the fate of the country. But this Mafia was not from Sicily, they were from Cambridge.

Its members – including Norman Fowler, Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke, and Norman Lamont – all attended Cambridge in the early 1960s, where they held senior positions in the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) and the Cambridge Union. It was at Cambridge that the politicians first met and where their political philosophy was moulded. They would go on to hold most senior positions in government bar Prime Minister, and introduce policies that continue to have a lasting impact on the UK.

Today, the reign of the Cambridge Mafia is over, but even as the UK strives for greater social equality and diversity, Cambridge alumni continue to have significant power in government: almost a quarter of MPs elected at the 2019 General Election attended Oxford or Cambridge, and a quarter of the current Cabinet attended Cambridge. This includes the Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden; the most important political decisions about the NHS, the environment, and national security are currently being made by someone who studied here.

“A quarter of the current Cabinet attended Cambridge”

Yet not all parts of Cambridge are represented equally in Westminster. A breakdown of the data reveals that at the start of 2024, almost seven in ten MPs who attended Cambridge were Conservative, and the Conservatives continue to be the most Oxbridge-dominated party.

Certain subject backgrounds certainly dominate: Law and History are the chosen areas of study for almost half of all sitting MPs that attended Cambridge. Politics and Economics were also popular choices, but STEM degrees are considerably lacking. This trend is true across all of parliament, and many believe the lack of STEM degrees among MPs is something that needs addressing. This is especially prudent for roles which might benefit from a greater understanding of the science behind the decisions they make, such as the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, a post which is currently filled by a Cambridge Philosophy & Law graduate.

But how and why do so many from certain corners of Cambridge end up in Westminster? For the Conservative minister Greg Hands, who read history at Robinson in the late 1980s, his time at Cambridge gave him the tools and, perhaps more importantly, the contacts he needed to break through into politics.

When I spoke to Hands, he recounted how his journey into politics was not initially intentional, first getting involved in the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) when someone knocked on his door to ask for his vote in the upcoming elections. Hands agreed, and began attending some of the meetings.

He describes how he got sucked in after that, even if he didn’t know where he would end up: “I enjoyed being involved in student politics […] but I wasn’t really thinking at that point that I was going to be an MP, a government minister or even a parliamentary candidate.” Hands goes on to say that the impressiveness of CUCA’s speakers prompted further involvement, and remembers being particularly excited by the idea that “there would [often] be a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet speaking to you.”

As the terms rolled by, Hands continued to be an active member of the society, eventually becoming Chair over its 800 members (at the time).

"What! No tie?" - Greg Hands spoke to Varsity of his desire to reshape the "old fogey" image of CUCA when he became ChairVarsity Archives
Hands invited controversial Education Secretary Kenneth Baker to speak at CUCA while ChairVarsity Archives

While Chair, Hands invited many influential politicians of the day to give talks at the university, which gradually encouraged him to consider the idea of a political career of his own more seriously. Yet it wasn’t just contemporary politicians Hands met while at Cambridge; he was also becoming acquainted with what he describes as his own “Cambridge Mafia of the 1980s”.

“As it happens, the tops of all the [Cambridge] political organisations at the time went on to be moderately famous,” Hands tells me. He’s not exaggerating; at the end of the 1980s, Lord Stephen Greenhalgh was Union President, senior Conservative MP Greg Clark was an executive member of the Cambridge Social Democratic Party, former transport adviser to Boris Johnson Andrew Gilligan was News editor of Varsity and a member of the Cambridge University Labour Club (CULC); and Robert Chote, Chair of the UK statistics authority, was president of the Cambridge University Liberal Association (CULA).

Hands was also an active member of the Cambridge Union, which he believes was very beneficial in helping him become an MP. While his involvement in the Union was as similarly unplanned as his foray into student politics (he did his first debate because no one else wanted to do it), his time at the Union allowed him to speak to more influential politicians and develop his public speaking skills.

Yet not everyone from Cambridge who would go on to become an MP built up the same confidence and contacts that Hands benefitted from. While Hands “really enjoyed” his time at Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP who now represents the constituency of Cambridge, had a far less positive experience. Studying at the university a decade before Hands, Zeichner tells a very different story:

“I think Cambridge is a much better city and the universities are much better now than they were in the 1970s. I was from a lower-middle class background and my partner was from a middle-middle class background, and neither of us felt terribly comfortable. So not comfortable did we feel, that we moved out of college about as quickly as we could.”

The source of his unease? “I don’t think it was the extremes of the Pitt Club and the more traditional fringe […] But most people weren’t similar to us, so our way of dealing with that was to get our heads down, do the academic work.”

Zeichner also studied history at Cambridge, and like Hands, he had no idea he would go into politics when he arrived at university. But, unlike Hands, Zeichner stayed away from student politics and believed that while the Cambridge Union played an important role in hearing from leading political figures, at the time it “represented all we didn’t feel comfortable with.”

Zeichner only kept a theoretical interest in politics as part of his degree, and suggests the reason that history is such a popular degree for MPs who attended Cambridge is because it concerns studying the exercise of power, and “looking back through most periods, you come to the conclusion you probably want to try and change things.” It wasn’t until Zeichner graduated in 1979, and when Margret Thatcher became Prime Minister, that he became involved in the practical side of politics.

So it appears that Cambridge has no set pathway for its students to progress into Westminster: some take advantage of the prestige and political opportunities the university and its political societies offer, whereas others focus solely on their academics and choose to pursue politics after graduation.

Yet while Cambridge certainly gets many MPs like Zeichner and Hands into Cambridge, it has a very poor track record of converting these politicians into Prime Ministers. The last PM to have attended Cambridge was Stanley Baldwin, who graduated from Cambridge in 1888. For much of the last couple of centuries, it has been Oxford that has dominated Downing Street, and only one of the seven Prime Ministers since the turn of the millennium, Gordon Brown, didn’t attend its halls.

Moreover, whether it is the Conservatives, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats that win the next general election, Britain will still be led by an Oxford graduate: Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer, and Ed Davey all completed undergraduate or postgraduate study at Britain’s oldest university.

“Whether it is the Conservatives, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats that win the next general election, Britain will still be led by an Oxford graduate”

What is the cause of this dominance? Hands suggests it may have something to do with Oxford’s infamous PPE course, graduates of which continue to make up an astonishing proportion of Britain’s elite. Zeichner, on the other hand, believes the answer is simpler than that: “power maintains itself”, he states.

However, several rising stars across the political spectrum that are speculated to one day lead their parties, including Labour’s Wes Streeting and the Conservative’s Mirriam Cates, are Cambridge graduates, signalling potential future disruption to Oxford’s Downing Street supremacy.


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But is Cambridge’s influence on Westminster even a positive thing for the UK? Hands remains sanguine, believing the skills Cambridge graduates can provide will mean they can provide a positive influence on national politics. Zeichner, despite being the parliamentary representative for the University, is less optimistic: “We would be a better country if we recognised the huge talents coming through right across the country and other universities too.”

While the future impact of Cambridge on national politics remains as unclear, and while getting into Cambridge continues to undergo significant changes, the unique and abundant academic and political opportunities available to students at the university means that it’s almost certain that its lasting influence on Westminster will continue – whether for better, or for worse.