Tory leadership contest: A good moment to draw a line

PUBLISHED: 13:47 15 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:47 15 June 2019

Tory leadership hopeful Michael Gove, who confessed to having used cocaine. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Tory leadership hopeful Michael Gove, who confessed to having used cocaine. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

2019 Getty Images

The issue here isn't drug use - it's hypocrisy, says Mitch Benn.

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And they're off.

The hitherto ever-expanding field of candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party (and thereby the prime ministership of the country) has contracted somewhat, as they clear the first hurdle, and we're now left with the ten 'serious' contenders.

Perhaps by the time you read this we will have lost a few more, but for now, one is presented with a round number of hopefuls and the bone-freezing realisation that there are at least eight, presumably sentient, human beings who are genuinely of the opinion that Esther McVey is the best person to lead our nation through a period of almost unprecedented political turmoil.

I don't know if you saw the hand-off from Piers 'n' Susanna's Good Morning Britain (with McVey present) to Lorraine Kelly the other morning on ITV... It'll still be visible on the net somewhere I've no doubt. The fact that Kelly, who has made a decades-long career out of being indestructibly cheerful at all sorts of ungodly hours of the morning, couldn't bring herself to feign even the slightest hint of warmth at being called upon to recall her time working with McVey back in her own television presenter days spoke volumes.

I've never met Esther McVey, but it takes a very particular kind of personality to come of age in Liverpool in the 1980s, as she and I both did, and then decide to join the Conservative party.

Meanwhile, we've seen the bizarre spectacle of Michael Gove's confession to having used cocaine back in his own previous existence (as a journalist and occasional broadcaster in the 1990s) with a rash of similar confessions from his competitors, from Rory Stewart's owning up to having smoked opium at an Iranian wedding to Andrea Leadsom, of all people, expressing heartfelt regret at having "used" cannabis as a student.

Whether this was in order to head off tabloid exposés such as the one which appeared to provoke Gove's mea culpa, or a sudden realisation that they all now looked less cool than Michael Gove and needed to rock n' roll themselves up a bit is a matter for future historians to ponder.

I'm going to assume most of you were around for at least some of the 1990s; if you don't think there was a hell of a lot of cocaine being consumed in London's journalistic and showbiz circles back then, try reading an early edition of Loaded magazine or getting through the whole of the third Oasis album. At the time I was a fledgling comedian, newly arrived on the London circuit 
and cocaine abuse - among those comics who could afford it - was rampant. Trust me, you've never known boredom until you're the only comedian in a dressing room full of comedians who isn't coked off his nut. I'd be more startled to discover that Michael Gove hadn't 
ever at least tried it.

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In fact, let's think about this: if we regard the 'counter culture' having started with rock 'n' roll, that makes it more than 60 years old.

If you were 16 when Heartbreak Hotel came out you're now nearly 80. If you were 17 when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, you're pushing 70.

If you were old enough to be a first generation punk rocker in 1976 you'll be turning 60 about now. Even the 'Second Summer of Love', the season of MDMA, acid house and warehouse raves, was 31 years ago.

What I'm trying to say is that pretty much everyone who's in any way in the public eye and still alive has probably at the very least tried some illegal drug or another.

The issue here isn't drug use, it's hypocrisy. If someone now in their fifties skinned up every now and then or did a few lines in their twenties and thirties, that doesn't make them a bad person (except tangentially; cocaine in particular is produced at the cost of untold human misery by murderous gangsters, but that's at least as valid an argument for legalising it as for prohibiting it).

If they've since made a career out of denouncing drug use (and drug users) and advocating harsh punishments for those caught doing what they themselves got away with, that's another matter.

There's also the irony that by confessing to an even slightly druggy past, politicians who extol the necessity to "crack down" on drug use completely undermine their own position.

You can't claim that drug use must be fiercely prohibited because of the dire effects it has upon users, while insisting that your own drug use caused no lasting damage and indeed that you're still sane and healthy enough to be allowed to run the country.

Because that's the point: it's not drug use (or even drug abuse) that screws up your life. Becoming addicted to drugs can screw up your life; being criminalised for being addicted to drugs really screws up your life. In a sane world, this series of Tory 'My Drugs Hell (Was Quite Nice Actually)' confessionals might spark a serious, mature debate about how best to address the issue of drug abuse in society. But we're not in a sane world right now.

We're in a world where some people think a woman not even Lorraine Kelly can force herself to smile at should be prime minister.

Resist.

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