On 12 June 1987, Oxford student journal Cherwell ran a small story titled “Union slave auction”, which had been promoted as “an opportunity to buy your favourite Union person for the evening”.
The event raised less than £100 for housing charity Shelter, the article reportedly states, adding that Michael Gove “got himself a bargain at £6 and “attracted enthusiastic bidding” himself, while Johnson and other students “were all sold in their absence”.
The prime minister had been elected president of the union the previous year following a prior failed attempt, while Mr Gove, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was engaged in what would be a successful bid to succeed him.
Shelter denounced the event, with a spokesperson saying: “Shelter does not condone racism of any kind, and we are distressed to hear that anyone may have raised money for us in this way.
“As it took place 34 years ago, we do not know if the money raised was received by Shelter. However, we extend our deepest apologies if so.”
The prime minister has previously offered rare expressions of regret about his time at university, where he and his predecessor David Cameron were members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club, famed for allegations of its members' elitism, vandalism and sexist behaviour.
“You really don’t have to dig back into Gove’s and Johnson’s privileged student past to understand their current ‘light-hearted’ views on slavery and structural racism. Why would you?" Labour MP Clive Lewis told The Observer, which unearthed the article and sent copies to both politicians.
“They lead a political party whose MPs routinely defend with impunity ‘blacking up’, hostile environment and ‘empire 2.0’. One funded to the tune of millions by corporations and individuals on the frontline of the post-colonial exploitation of the developing world. When you understand what both men and their party are enabling today and preparing for tomorrow, their past actions come as much less of a surprise.”
Downing Street and Mr Gove have been contacted for comment.