|He may not yet be the frontrunner. He may be untried, untested, inexperienced and oh so very young. But he is the one challenger above all others who has sprinkled stardust on the race for the Tory leadership.|
With his bravura performance at the Blackpool conference - rounded off with a proud pat on his beautifully pregnant wife's bump - David Cameron transformed himself into the most exciting prospect his battered, humiliated, defeatprone party has seen in years.
Ken Clarke has the gravitas and experience. David Davis has the early votes and the Whips' machine. Liam Fox has the support of the Right wing.
But it is Cameron who seems blessed with the magic touch to make his party feel good about itself again and strike a chord with the wider electorate, too.
As we commented some weeks ago: "This is a 38-year-old... who can only get better." And with his campaign momentum still growing, he appears very much the coming man in next week's leadership ballots.
But there is one area in which Mr Cameron is doing neither himself nor his party any good.
Ever since his Blackpool triumph, he has repeatedly refused to answer the simple question: has he ever taken drugs?
And in that stubborn silence, a whole thicket of doubts finds room to flourish. Whispers abound - many of them coming from political enemies in his own party - that some of those in his inner circle have been habitual drug users.
Doubtless they are unfounded, but this is an issue that goes far beyond the indiscretions - if any - of his student days.
Nobody would condemn him out of hand if he admitted some youthful experimentation. After all, a number of other Tory politicians have owned up to the same thing. Can anybody even remember their names?
But Mr Cameron ducks, dives and dodges instead. He claims it is "McCarthyite" to probe him in this way.
In this, he is supported by that other leadership contender, Ken Clarke, who has persuaded Tory MPs that such questions shouldn't be asked because this is a purely private matter.
Matter of legality
If Mr Cameron had had an affair outside marriage, then there just might be an argument for regarding such a matter as being relevant only to his family and his own conscience rather than an issue for the public domain.
But drugs? Drugs are illegal. And this is a matter of legality.
The ineluctable truth is that drug abuse is one of the most important and disturbing issues of our age and it is simply not acceptable for a man who aspires to lead Her Majesty's Opposition - and one day become Prime Minister - to claim that taking drugs is a private issue.
But the real problem with Mr Cameron's attitude is that it reeks of the terrible ambivalence that exists amongst Britain's ruling class over drug-taking.
Today it's an open secret that in the worlds of politics, the media, finance, fashion and showbusiness, a spliff or a snort of cocaine are deemed all too acceptable.
After all, darling, aren't there countless thousands of respectable middle-class people who indulge in this "recreational" habit? But the bitter truth is that there is a direct connection between this ambivalence over drugs among an affluent metropolitan elite and the hopeless, helpless junkies in bleak housing estates who are destroying their lives and blighting whole neighbourhoods through crime.
Is there a family in the land who isn't touched by this terrible evil? How many parents worry themselves sick over the possibility that their children will fall prey to the ubiquitous pushers?
How many people are prisoners in their own homes because of the drug dealing outside their front doors?
How many have their homes repeatedly robbed by junkies needing to feed their addiction?
And how many of those addicts have sunk into mental illness through supposedly "harmless" cannabis?
No fewer than 70 per cent of prisoners in Britain's jails have been convicted of crimes that are in some way drugs-related.
So vast is the prison population that a desperate Government is now reduced to letting inmates out early, in their tens of thousands, in an attempt to relieve the pressure.
Burglars, fraudsters, thieves and thugs - an army of undesirables is being decanted on to our streets in another symptom of the way our criminal justice system is being overwhelmed by the tide of lawlessness, largely inspired by drugs.
That is why David Cameron's silence is so damaging.
It isn't idle prurience that asks whether he's ever dabbled in illegal substances. It is a legitimate question for a man who may one day have to pass laws to deal with drug abuse.
In America, a land of truly transparent democracy, where holders of high office have to submit themselves to ruthless and unsparing scrutiny by Congressional committees, Mr Cameron's silence would be deemed astonishing and unacceptable.
If he becomes Prime Minister, how can he possibly have a position on drugs if his own record remains shrouded in mystery?
Doesn't such silence guarantee that the question will be raised again and again, fuelling speculation - perhaps unfairly - that he is neither willing nor able to address a crisis that is ruining lives?
Yes, he now says he would tighten the law on cannabis which this Government so foolishly relaxed. But why should voters be impressed?
They see only a politician who won't come clean and is thereby depriving himself of credibility and moral authority on a hugely important issue.
Surely David Cameron is a bigger and a better man than this.
He presents himself as a new kind of politician. He has shown himself capable of electrifying the Tory faithful.
He has the youth, energy and charisma to inspire the voters, too.
He promises to reach out to them, listen to their concerns and restore the trust in public life that New Labour has so recklessly squandered.
These are great aims. And he could be a great leader who breathes new life into the Tory cause and restores the vibrancy of our political culture.
That is why he owes it to himself - and, more importantly, the British electorate - to be honest, open and frank.
The longer he obfuscates over this matter, the deeper he digs himself into a hole