Pubdate: Sun, 16 Oct 2005
Source: Sunday Herald, The (UK)
Copyright: 2005 Sunday Herald
Author: James Cusick


David Cameron's halo is tarnishing fast due to his refusal to candidly
answer questions on past drug use, writes Westminster Editor James Cusick

From leader-in-waiting to derailed boy-wonder under pressure: David Cameron'
s rise and potential downfall has regenerated the debate on what kind of
past life a politician is justified in keeping secret.

In Cameron's case, the secret he's now fighting to protect is whether or not
he dabbled with class A drugs, in particular cocaine, especially during his
years at Oxford University.

The young shadow education secretary, who promised the Tory faithful an
"incredible journey" as he wooed them in the leadership beauty pageant at
the party conference in Blackpool, could not have imagined the detour he has
now been forced to take.

At the beginning of last week, Cameron's feathers had been only slightly
ruffled by his refusal to answer a question over whether or not he'd used
drugs, first asked on the hustings in Blackpool, then during a BBC
television interview - when he asked if "we are going to have some sort of
McCarthyite hearings into every MP?"

It was assumed the inquisition was about soft drugs and cannabis - and the
party had been here before. In 2000, Ann Widdecombe, then shadow home
secretary, had suggested instant ?100 fines for anyone caught with cannabis.
Eight prominent Tories quickly came out as former users, including Francis
Maude. David Willetts, Tim Yeo and Oliver Letwin. Their careers survived.

Cameron's election team must have assumed the storm would blow over for
their man too. But the drugs debate jumped a class when the former
Chancellor and fellow leadership contender Ken Clarke was asked during a
Commons hustings if he had ever used hard drugs. Clarke replied that he had
never used cocaine.

The inquisition immediately shifted from "soft" usage to class A, hard

Clarke and Liam Fox, with 23 and 20 parliamentary votes promised, are the
candidates fighting not to be eliminated first in this Tuesday's ballot of
MPs. Cameron, with 34 pledges, lies second, behind David Davis, who has 67
declared supporters. So any slide of support for Cameron is likely to
benefit Clarke first; and further erosion of Cameron's reputation in the
wider party is likely to benefit Davis, a man thought dead and almost buried
as a serious leadership contender after his dire performance in Blackpool.

One Tory insider said: "Clarke is the most experienced Westminster operator
still left in the Tory Party. Nothing he does is by accident. He answered
the question in the way he did, knowing the implications it would have. He
must have known the noise level in the inquisition on Cameron would be
turned up."

Cameron, with his privileged background, has tried hard to play down his
class. Until this year, he had almost accepted that his wealthy Eton College
and Oxford background would rule him out of becoming leader of a party that
was trying hard, if unsuccessfully, to dump its elitist image.

But now being accused, in however coded a manner, of being part of a
privileged, youthful elite who may have regarded themselves as "above the
law" by using illegal drugs, has the potential to haunt and hurt Cameron.

One person, at Cambridge University at the same time Cameron was at Oxford,
pointed out the status cocaine use had at that time: "To have been part of
an Oxbridge set who used cocaine 15 or 20 years ago wasn't about class A, it
was about being upper class. It was about having money ."

Cameron believes his strategy to refuse to answer direct questions on drugs
will encourage the issue to fade. But the impact of the issue has
demoralised a once-soaring campaign .

One of his supporters seemed almost in mourning when he said: "Dave has gone
from virtual coronation to media rehab with nothing in between. It is a

The gloss may fade even more this morning, with Cameron's leadership
election team on high alert. They expect today's newspapers, in particular
the Mail on Sunday, to have uncovered something "uncomfortable" about his
pre-politics life.

While Cameron himself took to the pages of the Daily Mail to reveal "The
truth about my attitude to drugs" - saying that Britain needed a government
"prepared to take the tough but thoughtful action necessary to fight back
against the scourge of drug abuse" - there has been a frenzied media hunt
aiming to seek out Cameron's former peers at Oxford and Eton, and those
insiders who worked at Conservative Central office in the late 1980s and
1990s when Cameron's Tory career kicked off. The prize? Any information, any
gossip, any hint on what Cameron is really hiding.

That prize's value saw a serial increase throughout last week on each
occasion Cameron refused to answer questions on past drugs use. In the Daily
Mail yesterday, Cameron rigorously stuck to his game-plan, saying: I've said
all I have to say on that subject. I've argued that all politicians have a
right to a private past."

Cameron may look fresh-faced and new, but he has enough political experience
to realise that his statement is idealistic and holds little electoral

George Bush's suspect draft record was under scrutiny in last year's US
Presidential elections. The US media wanted to know if Bush had lied or
covered up a "dodge" that saw him avoid military service. Bush's past record
of alcohol use was also under the microscope. In past hunts, President
Clinton was forced to admit he had used cannabis, but said he "hadn't

David Cameron is no different. Before the Conservative Party hand him the
keys to their future, there is a feeding frenzy over his past. And a refusal
to answer direct questions on alleged drug use isn't seen as acceptable.

His trouble began during a fringe event in Blackpool, when the Observer
columnist Andrew Rawnsley asked Cameron if he had ever taken drugs. The
question wasn't related to a strand of debate or discussion that had risen
during the fringe meeting, and Rawnsley insists it was curiosity, rather
than a pre-designed attack, that made him ask.

Cameron's reply was manna from heaven to journalists struggling to create a
dramatic contest between the Tory right, left and centre contestants who
were all promising glory ahead without defining any precise policies.

"I had a normal university experience," Cameron said. "There were things I
did as a student that I don't think I should talk about now that I am a
politician." But what was "normal" for Cameron at Oxford? A heroic level of
drinking doesn't appear to be what he was hinting at.

With Ken Clarke's manipulation changing the focus from soft to hard drugs,
and associating Cameron - in media terms anyway - with the fashionable
underworld of model Kate Moss and the hedonistic sets of upper-class west
London where he lives, it was open to David Davis to begin to score points
against his potential adversary in a contest turning dirtier by the day.

Davis landed his first real counter-punch last night on Channel 4's Morgan
and Platell programme, when he was asked if he thought someone who had taken
a class A drug could ever lead the party. Given an open goal to shoot into,
Davis kicked hard. "Well, it's a breach of the law, so if it was recent, the
answer would be no."

Although Cameron has only two more full days of trial-by-media till Tuesday'
s vote, there is said to be an urgency in his camp for a revamped strategy
that needs him to say more than he told BBC's Question Time last Thursday.
Then, in reply to a question on class A substances, he said: "We are .
allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes
and we do things that we should not and we are all human and we all stray."

Searching for the silver lining in the clouds of anguish that have quickly
descended on the golden boy of only a week ago, some of Cameron's election
team believe if he can come through this, his reputation can be transformed.

But one former Tory adviser, who narrowly failed to become an MP at this
year's general election and who believes a strong Tory leader will be needed
in 2009, sensed that Cameron is already "damaged goods".

He said: " If he stays silent, the rumours persist. If he admits the rumours
are true, his reputation is destroyed permanently. Silent or candid, he

"And the real losers are those of us who believed we'd found a winner. We
should never under estimate the present ability of this once-great party to
damage itself." 
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