Pubdate: Sun, 16 Oct 2005
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2005 The Observer
Author: Ned Temko
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


It was a simple question at an Observer meeting in Blackpool... but it has 
exploded into an issue that could derail David Cameron's leadership bid. On 
the eve of the vital Tory vote, Ned Temko looks at a favourite at bay

The Observer

The grandly named Baronial Hall in Blackpool's Winter Gardens - in fact, a 
large second-floor function room - was packed to overflowing. Members of 
the audience chatted in the kind of excited anticipation that nowadays 
signals the arrival of an A-list movie celebrity; or in years past, of 
someone on the scale of the great Harry Houdini.

The star of the evening - David Cameron, at a few days short of his 39th 
birthday an uncommonly young candidate for the leadership of the 
Conservative Party - could have been forgiven for seeing himself as the 
Tory equivalent of the famed escape artist.

Before the Blackpool party conference, the polls and pundits had suggested 
he would be lucky simply to stay in the race. But a dazzling campaign 
launch in London, followed by a conference speech compared to the finest 
flourishes of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had transformed his 
fortunes. Cameron the also-ran was fast becoming Cameron the front-runner.

As he relaxed into his chair alongside Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley 
for a fringe meeting, Cameron exuded confidence. The cheers that greeted 
Rawnsley's introductory remarks made it clear this was an audience that 
wished the young pretender well, an audience that was ready to answer his 
Blackpool podium call to 'join me on a journey' to lead the party and the 
country into the future.

Then came a 45-second exchange that could prove crucial in determining 
whether Cameron will secure the party leadership and get the chance of a 
shot at Downing Street.

'Did you use any drugs at Oxford?' Rawnsley asked. Amid nervous laughter 
from the audience, Cameron answered by not answering: 'There were things I 
did as a student that I don't think I should talk about now that I am a 
politician.' When Rawnsley, to more laughter, said: 'I can take that as a 
"yes",' Cameron held firm to his line: that was then. Life before politics 
is off limits.

Yet far from burying the issue, Cameron's non-answer led this week to a 
series of ever more pointed questions about drug use - not only about 
experimenting with cannabis, to which politicians in all parties have owned 
up in recent years, but about Class-A drugs such as cocaine.

For Cameron, the result was not only political pressure on a scale greater 
than anything he had encountered during four brief years as an MP. It was a 
personal crisis: according to close friends, one reason for his refusal to 
answer questions about drugs was the fact that a member of his immediate 
family had fought, and won, a battle against addiction.

'He was quite clear: if he said anything about drugs on the record, he felt 
that the media would see that as open season,' a senior campaign aide told 
The Observer yesterday. 'We knew, given David's age, that the question 
about drugs use was bound to come up. We discussed it in preparing for the 
Rawnsley interview, so we knew the line David was going to take. And we all 
thought, and think, he was right to do so.'

But another top member of the campaign team added: 'This is not the kind of 
week we would have wished for.'

The pressure began in earnest last Sunday, when Cameron was again asked - 
by Andrew Marr on BBC television - about drugs use. National newspapers, 
above all the Daily Mail, began to focus on Class A drugs - culminating in 
a full-page editorial calling on him to 'come clean'.

As the issue took on prominence, it began to overshadow Cameron's steady 
advance in the leadership race. While publicly careful not to attack any of 
the rival candidates, Cameron confidants say privately they were convinced 
that much of the momentum behind the drugs story was being fed by 
supporters of the former front-runner: Shadow Home Secretary David Davis. 
The Davis camp deny any involvement.

At a hustings for all leadership candidates on Wednesday before the 
right-wing 92 Committee - named after the address on Cheyne Walk where the 
group first met - it was expected that Cameron would be asked about drugs.

He wasn't - but only because the former Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, 
Cameron's rival for the centre-ground vote, was up first. The consummate 
politician, Clarke told the MPs it would be wrong to grill Cameron on the 
issue - but added that he had never taken cocaine.

By mid-week, the Cameron campaign team - with one exception - was 
increasingly alarmed that the issue of what the Witney MP had taken, and 
when, might undo the careful strategy that had put him within reach of the 
party's leadership.

'The exception was David,' one of the inner circle said yesterday. 'He knew 
what was coming - and he was absolutely certain about what he was going to 

The crucial media test - and potentially Cameron's greatest leadership risk 
- - came on Thursday night, when he agreed to go on the BBC's Question Time. 
His top aides and advisers were either watching nervously in the hall or 
huddled around TV sets ready to consult by phone once the ordeal was over.

The Class A drugs question - this time from David Dimbleby - came, as they 
knew it would. Cameron answered - by not answering - as he had throughout 
the week. His fellow panelists were split over whether he should - or more 
realistically - could keep dodging the issue.

'But that wasn't what really mattered,' an MP at the centre of the Cameron 
campaign told The Observer. 'The point about going on Question Time was 
that he was putting himself in front of a public audience. And, yes, it was 
only this one audience, but it was clear that there was - and is - public 
sympathy for David's stand.' The audience clapped his answers.

What was not so clear, the MP and other Cameron backers acknowledged 
yesterday, is precisely what effect the drugs question will have on his 
leadership ambitions.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, is Cameron's campaign manager. He 
told The Observer that the team had always assumed that the key to his 
chances would lie in turning in extraordinary performances at his campaign 
launch, on the eve of the party conference, and in his conference speech. 
'And, under enormous pressure, he did,' Osborne said.

The launch, all soft lighting and mood music, overshadowed a stilted 
performance less than a mile away by Davis. At the conference, too, Cameron 
delivered poetry - even rival camps acknowledged - and Davis, prose.

With the momentum inexorably favouring Cameron since the Blackpool 
conference, the danger in the drugs debate has been that it has given the 
other contenders - Davis, Clarke and the shadow foreign secretary Liam Fox 
- - a chance to turn the tide.

'The reason it has got so much attention,' said a Cameron campaign aide, 
'is that our candidate has been doing well. The others see this as a chance 
to stop that.'

Davis held his counsel - until a TV interview yesterday, in which he said a 
person who had used drugs 'recently' would not be fit to lead the party or 
the country. He added that he thought politicians should give 'straight 
answers' to such questions.

Clarke, for his part, has reiterated the view that Cameron should be left 
alone - but invariably adding his own denial of ever using cocaine. In 
comments over the weekend, he pointedly drew a distinction between his own 
wealth of political experience and Cameron's brief stint in the Commons. 
The tacit message: in choosing a leader, inexperience is a risk not worth 

Fox, firmly on the ideological right of the party, has strongly denied any 
drug use and added that, as a physician, he knows how serious the effects 
can be.

As the contest enters its most critical phase - a final hustings for Tory 
MPs tomorrow, and the first round of their vote on a leader the next day - 
a top Cameron aide said 'the key for us is what David's handling of the 
question will be seen to have shown about his qualities as leader'.

Cameron's camp is hoping - and, yesterday, was professing increasing 
confidence - that he might emerge strengthened from a week of 'terrible 
pressure on both him and his family'.

Only two issues, said a senior Tory yet to declare for any candidate, could 
leave the Cameron camp in trouble: specific allegations in the media, 
'quoting friends of friends,' about drugs use; or a backlash among ordinary 
Conservative members focusing on Cameron's relatively liberal record on 
drugs policy.

In the MPs' leadership ballot, Davis and Cameron had a solid lead yesterday 
among those who have declared their preferences,. Since the candidate with 
the fewest votes is eliminated, a close-run battle is on between Clarke and 
Fox to secure third place.

Assuming that the second MPs' ballot, scheduled for this Thursday, leaves a 
Davis-Cameron choice for the final vote by 300,000 Conservative members 
around the country, that contest could shape up as the older, more 
experienced, 'straight-talking Davis' against a youthful Cameron who has 
dodged questions about his past.

Cameron's leading supporters insisted yesterday, however, that the message 
most people would take from last week's events was quite different. Michael 
Gove, the Times journalist turned MP, said: 'He's shown grace under 
pressure - under a degree of pressure I can't imagine any politician of 
David's age will have had to deal with.'

Osborne spoke of a week - however unwelcome - that would be seen as 'a test 
of leadership character... You have got to be able, if you are leader of 
the party or the country, once you've made a decision, to stick to it.'

Another member of Cameron's inner circle said that the significance of his 
response to the pressure - especially from the Daily Mail, the clarion 
voice of the Tory right - went far deeper.

'In every instance over the past decade - first with William Hague, then 
Iain Duncan Smith - the story of the Tories is that the Daily Mail group, 
various columnists and voices on the far right, have thrown leaders off 
course. David has demonstrated in his first week of national prominence 
that he will not be blown off course - a very powerful message to everyone 
within the Conservative party - and one of the key requirements in any leader.'

Cameron remained unruffled yesterday - even when asked whether he would 
agree to our naming the relative who had faced such difficulties with 
drugs. Quietly, politely, firmly, he replied: 'I have made it clear to 
everyone that I simply won't comment on these questions.'

He said he felt that he had 'come through it well. Every survey we've seen 
suggests that people understand and support the decision I've taken - and 
reports from the constituencies have also been extremely encouraging.'

He was, he made clear, looking forward to the week ahead.

Should politicians have to disclose whether they have taken illegal drugs?

Isoken Gaius-Obaseki Lawyer from London I don't see that it's a problem as 
long as it doesn't impinge on their work. If they refuse to disclose 
certain details of their personal life, it could mean that they are aware 
that it might compromise their career. If a politician preaches a hard line 
on drugs and then is found to have been trying to cover his own slightly 
murky past, it shows him up as a hypocrite. There's also the problem of 
being discovered. If they keep the details of their private life from the 
public, then they should be aware of how often this sort of information is 
leaked or uncovered by newspapers. So it's both a moral and practical 
issue. It's very difficult for a prominent public official to hide his past.

Martin Barnes Chief executive, DrugScope, a leading drug information 
charity People should have the right to keep it private. Whether or not 
somebody has used drugs in the past is really not relevant to their 
abilities and the job - or even the policy positions - they might take up 
today. If there are valid accusations of hypocrisy at a political level 
that may be different, but when it's simply on the issue of 'Have you used 
drugs in the past?' I think it's a distraction. I'm much more interested in 
hearing whether politicians understand the issue of drug misuse and what 
are their policy responses to what we all agree is a major social problem. 
The level of interest and discussion that's taken place is indicative of 
how difficult it can be to have an open and objective discussion about the 
drug issue. Part of the difficulty is that, when it comes to looking at 
drug policy, there's often more emotion or finger-pointing involved than a 
willingness to look at practical and sometimes difficult solutions.

Sidney Blumenthal Former senior adviser to President Clinton If you get a 
high-level job in the federal government in the US, you have to disclose 
and you have to give a urine sample, which I did - and it turned out that 
it did not contain any evidence of the drugs I'd taken when I was a teenager.

In American politics, it's become an irrelevant issue. Famously George Bush 
said: 'When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.' 
He drew a line under it and the press never followed. Although Clinton was 
ridiculed for saying, 'I never inhaled,' the issue never amounted to 
anything. Same for Al Gore. Amazingly in the country of on-going culture 
wars, drug use has fallen off the map. I think it's irrelevant. Who cares? 
I think there are some people whose politics might be improved if they were 
on drugs - or drink.

A former cocaine user (Wishes to remain anonymous) Banker, City of London 
The truth is that people take drugs in their thousands. In the City, it is 
hard to find someone who hasn't. At Cambridge, drugs were rife, and I know 
the same was true at Oxford. David Cameron becomes a 'real life' 
Conservative when he evades the question and suggests an affirmative. It 
makes myself and my friends warm to him and hope that perhaps he will look 
at the issue more sensibly than just reacting to tabloid pressure on drugs.

However I understand that an admission of drug use could hamper his chances 
of becoming the party leader, and would be twisted by his opponents to sell 
him as a liberal softie, so I fully respect his right to keep that issue 
private. I am sure some of the journalists hounding Cameron have dabbled 
themselves; everyone has a few vices in their past and everyone has a right 
to keep them to themselves.

Lord Tebbit Conservative former Cabinet minister I think it matters very 
little if it's merely a question of having tried the odd bit of cannabis at 
university 20 or 30 years ago. If it's any deeper than that, then the 
public should know, because that might affect their attitude towards drug 
control. A prolonged time using a Class A drug is a matter that might 
reflect on the individual in a way that isn't the case with someone who 
experimented at university.You can't make a general rule on whether it 
makes them unfit for office. A friend of mine received treatment for 
cocaine addiction some years ago and is now a model citizen. People have 
been down the road and dug themselves out of it. Were that to be true of 
someone in public life, people tend to admire rather despise them. On the 
whole, the general rule for politicians is: if you've got a bit of a 
skeleton in the cupboard, then open the door a bit, because, if you don't, 
people are likely to think you've got a great collection of bones.'

Janet Betts Anti-drugs campaigner and mother of Leah Betts, who died after 
taking ecstasy on her 18th birthday in 1995. On the whole, I would say, 
yes, they should. It makes a politician a more believable person, who 
understands more of the side of things that affects a lot of families. That 
doesn't make it right. Hopefully he learnt from it and doesn't do it now. 
That would be more worrying and it would make him unfit for office. A drug 
is a drug, but then somebody people would say, 'Well OK, so are alcohol and 
fags.' What winds me up about Kenneth Clarke is I always remember him when 
he was Chancellor of the Exchequer with a cigar in one hand a whisky in the 
other, totally flaunting it, and that put me off the man forever. In my 
mind, it would make a difference if a politician had been smoking cannabis, 
which many people do at university, or cocaine. But none of them is good. 
They could all affect his judgment now if he'd been doing it for any length 
of time.

Lily Henderson Blackpool councillor chair of South Blackpool Conservative 
Association Every should care about the drugs issue. The children involved 
are getting younger and younger, and, if we don't set an example, it's a 
bigger problem. I personally feel terribly sorry for the experience David 
Cameron has had with a member of the family affected by drugs. We've had it 
in our own family, so I know how difficult it is. But, as for the question 
of whether he took drugs, if he did do it, I feel he should just come out 
and say it and move on. He says that people must be left to have private 
lives. But that is one thing you don't have once you enter the public 
domain, as anyone who has been involved in politics knows - you don't have 
a private life.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom