To understand the Zahawi story and Tory sleaze, look no further than Britain’s posh cliques

A country in deep crisis ought to at least have a government capable of governing; it is post-Brexit Britain’s unlucky fate to be run by an administration in a similar state of breakdown. The Tory party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, has been found to have committed a serious breach of the ministerial code and finally sacked. The investigation into bullying accusations against Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, is yet to conclude. Meanwhile, the latest story centred on Boris Johnson grinds on.

If it was a play, it would sit awkwardly between thriller and farce, with characters that were well drawn, and well connected. Johnson, we know: the financially incontinent prime minister who desperately needed an £800,000 “credit facility”. Then there is Sam Blyth, a “distant cousin” of Johnson and founder of a chain of Canadian private schools, apparently persuaded to be the then prime minister’s loan guarantor. The cast is completed by Richard Sharp, the former banker and Tory donor who is now the chair of the BBC, and Simon Case, Britain’s most senior civil servant. Questions now swirl around Sharp’s alleged dealings with the other three, in the weeks and months before he was appointed to his role at the BBC. Last Monday, Johnson said that Sharp “knows absolutely nothing about my personal finances – I can tell you that for ding-dang sure”. Over the weekend, the Sunday Times published a leaked letter reportedly handed to Johnson by Case: “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair,” it said, “it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters.” We now await enlightenment about how both these things could possibly be true.

By way of shining a bit more light on this particular story, consider the backgrounds of the actors in it. Johnson, of course, was educated at Eton College and Oxford University. Sharp, whose father was the chairman of Cable & Wireless plc and became Baron Sharp of Grimsdyke, was a sixth former at the private Merchant Taylors’ school in north-west London, and also went to Oxford; his twin sister is the president of the King’s Bench Division of the high court. Sunak – who worked for Sharp at the investment bank Goldman Sachs – is another Oxford alumnus, and an old boy of Winchester College; Case went to the independent Bristol Grammar School, and Trinity College, Cambridge.

And so it goes on. Sharp’s appointment as BBC chair is being reviewed by the commissioner for public appointments, William Shawcross – another Old Etonian and Oxford graduate, whose daughter Eleanor (St Paul’s School for Girls, then Oxford) is Sunak’s policy chief. On the Sunday that the story first broke, Johnson and Sharp were defended on BBC One by Johnson’s sister Rachel Johnson, another former pupil of St Paul’s who went on to Oxford.

Meanwhile, questions about dealings between HMRC and Nadhim Zahawi – a comparatively lowly graduate of University College London, although he also spent time at private schools and is very wealthy – were being investigated by the government’s ethics adviser, Laurie Magnus, a former financier and “3rd baronet”, who is – guess what? – an alumnus of both Oxford and Eton.

To some extent, I have seen how these absurdly narrow cliques cohere, and why Britain – or rather England – still looks more like a weird fortified city-state than a forward-looking country. In 1989, I went to Oxford, having made it there from a comprehensive school and a state-sector sixth-form college. Then, as now, it was an institution that supposedly recruited and schooled the ruling class, but I quickly got the impression that the latest elite generation had already come into being, long before the relevant people had entered higher education.

Boris Johnson and David Cameron in 2006.
‘When David Cameron became Tory leader, the renaissance of poshness and entitlement was complete.’ Boris Johnson and Cameron in 2006. Photograph: David Hartley/REX/Shutterstock

Somewhere outside my social circles were people who had arrived at Oxford secure in the knowledge that they would be both comfortable in such grand surroundings and in touch with lots of people they already counted as friends (like a lot of state-educated students, I arrived there knowing no one at all). In a book titled The Oxford Myth, put together in 1988 by Rachel Johnson, Boris Johnson described “a loosely knit [sic] confederation of middle-class undergraduates, invariably public school, who share the same accents and snobberies, and who meet each other at the same parties”. He went on: “If you are a member of the establishment, you will know it. You cannot be recruited.” I saw this in glimpses: Jacob Rees-Mogg walking down Oxford High Street, dressed in his customary double-breasted suit; his fellow high-ups at the famous Oxford Union Society, who seemed old before their time, superficial and impossibly confident.

Last year saw the publication of the Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper’s superb book Chums, which was about two connected stories: the hatching of the idea of Brexit at Oxford, and the tale of how the Conservative party eventually ended the unbroken run of state-educated leaders that had gone from Ted Heath to Michael Howard. “In the 1980s,” Kuper wrote, “the upper classes were regaining the confidence that had been beaten out of them during Britain’s social democratic 1945-to-1979 era.”

For all Margaret Thatcher’s patina of petit-bourgeois meritocracy, he said, “during her reign, privilege and the right accent became something to be celebrated again”. You see this vividly in the infamous Bullingdon Club photograph featuring Johnson and David Cameron, taken at Oxford in 1987; two decades later, when Cameron became Tory leader, the renaissance of poshness and entitlement was complete. Kuper describes Cameron as “a quasi aristocrat who ruled the UK with a posh clique of school chums”, a way of doing things at least partly adopted by his latest successor: Sunak’s new “political secretary” is the former Times and Spectator writer James Forsyth, a schoolfriend from Winchester.

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There have been two recurring themes in recent political history. Johnson crystallised a sense of rich and powerful people acting with assumed impunity; Sunak, the weak prefect, seems so accustomed to such behaviour that he can’t figure out how to stop it. But this story blurs into something even bigger: a chain of people safely bound into absurd networks of privilege have taken endlessly stupid decisions, knowing that their wealth and connections mean they will never have to worry about the consequences. This is the essential story of how we were led out of the European Union by such privately educated chancers as Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings and the former Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. It also applies to the years of austerity instigated by Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg.

The context for these tragedies remains as brazen and appalling as ever: at the last count, senior judges were privately educated, along with 51% of what the Sutton Trust charity calls “leading journalists”, and 52% of foreign office diplomats. The figure for Sunak’s cabinet is 65%.

We may break the conveyor belt that leads from private schools to the commanding heights of power with a simple change: ensuring that the intake of Oxford, Cambridge and all Russell Group universities reflects the proportion of people in the UK who are state educated (93%). I also wonder if it would be an idea to do what Kuper suggests, and turn Oxford and Cambridge into postgraduate institutions, ending “elite” undergraduate education altogether.

But obviously, there is so much more to do: put crudely, a huge process of reform and positive discrimination that would finally open up our institutions, and belatedly begin their transformation. Even as Britain tumbles, this conversation has barely begun. It ought to start with a blunt acknowledgment: that there is no way out of this country’s morass of failure and sleaze until all those circles of power and entitlement are finally pushed aside.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist