The Sikorski set: the Polish foreign minister has locked horns with Cameron - but their history goes back to the Bullingdon Club

Joy Lo Dico traces an Establishment power clique from the Bullingdon Club to Brussels

    The week began badly when, on Monday, the Polish magazine Wprost released secretly recorded tapes, on them the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski's linguistically florid appraisal of Cameron's Europe policies. "It's either a very badly thought-through move, or, not for the first time, a kind of incompetence in European affairs," he began politely. And then, "remember? He f**ked up the fiscal pact [of 2011]. He f**ked it up."

    That kind of criticism might have graced fewer of the front pages had it come from another European minister. But Sikorski and David Cameron are both Eighties Oxford University boys, both Bullingdon clubbers who ran with the same set of friends and came out of the same intellectual crucible. To this day Sikorski still moves easily through British political circles: he had lunch with Michael Gove last week and remains good friends with Boris Johnson.

    Sikorski's criticism shows up Cameron's flaws on the international stage. Though they share the same social fabric, "I wouldn't say they were cut from the same cloth politically," says Ed Lucas, The Economist's senior editor and an old friend of Sikorski. "Cameron has a rather shallow understanding of Europe. Boris at least has his roots in classical European civilisation." And Sikorski's are right at the heart of it.

    Sikorski arrived in Oxford in 1982 and played the part of the English gent. "He was more English than the English," says one contemporary, journalist Rachel Johnson. He had excellent English, welltailored suits and even a penchant for bow-ties. He earned himself the nickname "Radish" and hung out with Gottfried von Bismarck.

    The young Pole was swept into the Bullingdon Club — the drinking club that Cameron would also join a few years later — by the future Mayor of London. "I vividly remember the night of my election to the Bullingdon, which happened as I was asleep in my room in Walton Street," Sikorski told Andrew Gimson for his book Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson. "In the middle of the night a dozen screaming figures burst in to my room and demolished it completely. I vividly remember Boris, a very solid and friendly man, saying, 'Congratulations, man. You've been elected'." Also in the gang was colourful Old Etonian Darius Guppy, who would become a longstanding friend.

    Britain was rocked by race riots and miners' strikes in the early Eighties but in Oxford a new hedonism was in full swing. Nigella Lawson was portered in a sedan chair, while Olivia Channon, daughter of Trade and Industry Secretary Paul Channon, overdosed and died from a cocktail of champagne, sherry and heroin at von Bismarck's rooms after her finals in 1986 — the end of the party for the gilded youth.

    But while Sikorski looked the part, his English gent "act" didn't convince all. Gimson says that: "By Guppy's account some of the members did not want Sikorski because he was a foreigner and, as they put it, 'not suitable material'." Toby Young, also at Oxford, described him as "like some Ruritanian duke in a 1930s movie who, just at the point of marrying Greta Garbo, is exposed as an encyclopedia salesman from Seattle".

    Sikorski's image was helped by sharing a surname with the former Polish prime minister, who led the government in exile during the Second World War after the German invasion of Poland. It is an assumption (still held) that he was a grandson of General Sikorski, an association friends at Oxford don't recall him disavowing. If they were related, it was distantly. Sikorski, the son of two architects raised on a housing estate, donned his first pair of political boots as a student leader in the Solidarnosc movement, against communist rule, before coming to London in 1981.

    Tales that he was funded by the CIA also seem tosh. Ed Lucas says it was the rather more banal acronym Ilea, the Inner London Education Authority, that doled out the grant, and as Sikorski was a political refugee after martial law had been imposed in Poland at the end of 1981, he qualified.

    AT OXFORD he came under the wing of Zbigniew Pelczynski, a wartime émigré from Poland who was a professor of philosophy at Pembroke and worked on bringing Polish students into British universities — he also counts current Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán as a protégé.

    Sikorski also found himself in the company of historian Niall Ferguson, and, at meetings of the Canning Club at Oxford of "young Thatcherites [who] would gather at the Canning Club to drink cheap claret and listen to precocious papers", recalled Ferguson in Always Right, an essay on Mrs Thatcher after her death. The Cold War was their intellectual battle and the Soviet Union their target. "We were insufferable but we knew we were right.

    I still remember vividly the night when Radek Sikorski proposed a toast to the 'Victims of Yalta'" (those who were repatriated to the Eastern Bloc after the war, many of whom were executed or sent to labour camps).

    In 1984 Sikorski took the arguments about the Soviet Union's repression to the floor of the Oxford Union, the university debating society, with the motion "This House believes that the enforced stability of Poland is essential for the peace of Europe". George Walden, a future minister in Thatcher's government, defended it while he and Timothy Garton Ash, now Professor of European Studies at Oxford, opposed.

    "He absolutely smashed the opposition," said Lucas, who believes the debate to have been as important as the notorious 1933 Union debate "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country".

    Of the intellectual relationships forged at Oxford, Sikorski still commands support. Ferguson continues to admire him — they were both keynote speakers at the Margaret Thatcher on Liberty conference last week — and he recently said: "If there's going to be a president of a federal Europe, he gets my vote."

    Sikorski is also known for being loyal to friends, regardless of their political or social capital. After Oxford, he went on to become a war correspondent for The Spectator in Afghanistan, during which time he courted his future wife, the American-born journalist Anne Applebaum. When Guppy stood trial for jewellery theft fraud in 1993, an article appeared in The Spectator decrying the media's attacks on him, reportedly penned by Applebaum under a pseudonym. Guppy's mother Susha repaid the favour with a generous review of Sikorski's book The Polish House in the Independent on Sunday.

    The most significant of the friendships Sikorski has had is with Boris Johnson. Boris cut his teeth on the European question after university as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

    He now talks of loosening some ties with Europe, while Sikorski enjoys Poland's new position in the union — even brokering a rapprochement between Germany and Poland last year. But the politics of Europe don't divide the two. They greeted each other at a dinner party a few years back with gorilla-like cries of "Buller, Buller, Buller" — a reference to the Bullingdon.

    The comments on Cameron are not a comment on his relationship with Britain. If anything Sikorski's ties have grown deeper over the years. "He's obviously an Anglophile — he loves British society — but his contempt for British foreign policy has been visible for years," says a former senior diplomat. He continues to be a top-table guest here. On Friday he was at the Garrick for a lunch hosted by Lord Weidenfeld's Club of Three, which brings together influentials from Britain, France and Germany. Leading the British delegation was Education Secretary Michael Gove.

    His familial sympathies still lie in Britain, a country that educated him, while his two sons with Applebaum, Tadeusz and Aleksander, are both at Eton. And when Applebaum comes to celebrate her 50th birthday next month, it will be at a manor house in England. Boris is on the guest list.

    The one friendship Sikorski does not seem to have developed is the one with Cameron, who never got involved with Brussels like Boris did, or got swept up in Thatcherism, a trail Gove followed. Nor did he see Europe from any side other than leafy southern England. His post-university career was in PR.

    Sikorski therefore looks like the coming man and is a strong candidate to be nominated as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, replacing Baroness Ashton — provided Cameron doesn't try to veto him too.

    With his continued sway within British conservative circles, Cameron's critic can't easily be written off as some fake Ruritanian Duke any more.