Pubdate: Tue, 18 Jun 2002
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Tom Baldwin and Andrew Pierce


TORY wounds on drugs and gay rights are re-opened today with the leak of a 
letter showing that a member of the Shadow Cabinet backs the repeal of laws 
against cannabis and the promotion of homosexuality.

John Bercow, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said that 
legalisation of cannabis would help the party to "reconnect with millions 
of people who consider the present law to be an ass". His letter, a copy of 
which has been obtained by The Times, said that allowing people to take 
cannabis legally would break the link with hard-drug pushers and encourage 
"freedom and responsibility".

Mr Bercow, the first Shadow Cabinet minister to advocate lifting the ban, 
added: "As long as people are given health warnings, they should be free to 
choose for themselves. Our approach has seemed shrill, impracticable and 
eerily detached from the reality of the lives of millions of our fellow 
citizens. This must change."

He also condemned the party for blocking the repeal of Section 28 laws, 
which are designed to prevent local authorities promoting homosexuality. 
Those who "fulminate in support" of Section 28 have "only the haziest idea 
of its meaning in practice", he said. Aspects of the law are "gratuitously 
offensive", and Tories should be the "foe of all bigots" instead of 
choosing to "die in the ditch to defend" the policy.

The letter's disclosure reflects the growing tension between Tory 
traditionalists, who resent social liberals such as Mr Bercow, and 
modernisers, who are frustrated with the slow pace of change.

During the Tory leadership election last year Mr Duncan Smith sought to 
broaden his appeal by promising to review the party's position on cannabis 
and Section 28. Since then there have been no changes to policy in these 
areas, even though the Government has promised a softer approach to 
cannabis and signalled that it will launch another attempt to repeal 
Section 28 next year.

Steven Norris, a leading moderniser, said last night: "How long does it 
take to review policy on Section 28? It's time to say 'no' to that piece of 
legislation, and maybe a 'yo!' to cannabis."

Mr Bercow wrote the letter to Ann Widdecombe last July, before she quit as 
Shadow Home Secretary, when he was a member of her team.

His allies said yesterday that the leak, almost a year after the letter was 
written, could be an attempt to embarrass him after a series of rows on 
issues such as the rights of gay couples to adopt to children. Indeed, one 
leading Tory traditionalist said: "John should stick to his brief and stop 
stirring up trouble for Iain."

Mr Bercow said: "I've no intention of commenting on what was, until now, 
private correspondence.a   Asked if he still held the views expressed in 
the letter, he replied: "I'm a member of the Shadow Cabinet and I am 
pleased to share responsibility for the party's policies."

He has already been slapped down for previous comments on such issues. When 
he hinted in an interview last year that he did not support an "all-out 
war" against soft drugs, Mr Bercow was forced to issue an immediate 
statement saying he did not advocate legalisation of cannabis.

Miss Widdecombe, whose hardline stance on cannabis prompted an infamous 
Shadow Cabinet revolt two years ago when eight of her colleagues admitted 
having experimented with the drug, also refused to discuss the leaked 
letter. She made it clear, however, that she remained deeply opposed to Mr 
Bercow's views. On Section 28, Miss Widdecombe said: "It's the duty of 
Conservatives to protect the vulnerable and I can think of nothing more 
vulnerable than the innocent minds of young children."
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