Pubdate: Tue, 11 Oct 2005
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Michael White, political editor


David Cameron, the new favourite to win the Conservative leadership,
will undergo a severe test of his political toughness tomorrow when he
faces backbench Tory MPs keen to learn the limits of his youthful

The stakes were raised yesterday when a discussion of drugs and crime
at Question Time on the first day of the new parliamentary season
prompted Labour heckles about "Cannabis Cameron" and other witticisms.

The shadow education spokesman triggered alarm bells among wavering
colleagues at the weekend when he brushed aside a series of questions
about the drugs he did or didn't take at Oxford University 20 years

At his party's Blackpool conference, where a fluent platform
performance propelled him to the front of the pack, Mr Cameron
deflected questions about student drug-taking.

"I am a politician ... I had a normal university experience," said the
MP for Witney, who went from Eton to Christ Church College. On ITV he
later said: "I did lots of things before I came into politics I
shouldn't have done. We all did."

By the time he appeared on the BBC's Sunday AM he was complaining
about having "some sort of McCarthyite hearings", for all MPs. By this
time three of his rivals, David Davis, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Dr Liam
Fox, had denied experimenting with drugs.

Kenneth Clarke, Mr Cameron's rival for the centre-left vote, had
refused to answer such questions on principle.

But he is famous for other addictive lifestyle choices, cigars and
beer, so a drug habit is deemed by most colleagues to be both unlikely
and unnecessary.

Tomorrow the candidates face a private husting of Tory MPs, whose 198
votes will decide who gets into the final round on December 5.

Rival camps predict that fellow politicians will not be content to
accept the kind of "politician's answers" acceptable on TV.

Some MPs believe Mr Cameron should have been honest, as half the
shadow cabinet were when asked about cannabis in 2002. They fear a
lack of frankness means that the MP or some of his personal or
political friends in the so-called Notting Hill set have more to hide,
either about drugs or other things "we all did".

George Bush has faced persistent gossip about his wild youth,
involving hard drugs as well as drink. Bill Clinton famously "smoked
but did not inhale", cannabis.

After the Kate Moss cocaine scandal the tabloids are dangerously
obsessed with the issue.

As with Douglas Hurd's Etonian candidacy in 1990 when John Major
played the class card, Mr Cameron's rivals are keen to contrast the
casual recreational attitude towards drugs among a privileged elite
with its dire consequences on working class estates.
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MAP posted-by: Matt Elrod