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Drugs high on the agenda as Tory ballots go out

Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, 4th November 2005

Voting finally gets underway this weekend in the Conservative leadership contest, after a TV debate between the two contenders last night returned the spotlight to the drugs issue.

In an otherwise fairly evenly-matched hour long clash on the BBC's Question Time, the frontrunner David Cameron confirmed that he believed ecstasy should be downgraded from class A to class B.

His rival, David Davis, immediately pounced on the position, saying ecstasy had been responsible for several deaths, including that of the Essex teenager Leah Betts.

Mr Davis' odds shortened narrowly from 11-2 to 6-1 after last night's debate, although Mr Cameron remains the frontrunner.

The two candidates now go on a nationwide campaigning tour, with 11 private hustings being hosted for Conservative party members. The 300,000 members will receive ballot papers this weekend, and around 40% are expected to vote almost immediately. They have until December 5 to return their ballot papers, and the result will be announced the next day.

Mr Davis and Mr Cameron are making a big effort to woo party members this weekend, starting with a string of events today. Mr Davis will address party members in Cirencester, Cheltenham and Cardiff.

Mr Cameron will meanwhile go on the hunt for votes in Winchester, the village of St Marybourne in rural north Hampshire and in Windsor.

The shadow education secretary will also attempt to cement his reputation as the Tory with the ability to appeal to floating voters by meeting a cross-section of non-Conservative supporters in Westminster.

Downgrading ecstasy from class A to B, and cannabis from class B to C, was the recommendation of the Commons home affairs select committee, on which Mr Cameron served in the last parliament.

Mr Cameron last night argued that it was essential if drugs warnings to young people were to be "credible."

This morning his spokesman confirmed the issue would be examined if he became leader but added a qualification: "It would be a matter for the party to decide."

Members of the Cameron team said his stance would not damage his prospects because he had been consistent.

The early stages of Mr Cameron's leadership bid were almost derailed by a flurry of speculation that the 39-year-old had tried cocaine before becoming an MP. Mr Cameron declined to comment directly on the matter, merely saying lawmakers should not be lawbreakers.

Three years ago the home affairs select committee recommended downgrading both cannabis and ecstasy, although the government only took up the former recommendation.

Mr Cameron conceded last night that the recommendation on cannabis might have to be re-examined in the light of the emergence of especially strong varieties.

But he stood by the call to reclassify ecstasy, which was rejected by ministers.

"When I was on the home affairs select committee, we looked at this," he said.

"And the most important thing we thought was to make sure that the drug classifications make sense to young people and were credible.

"And I had a concern that if you put ecstasy and heroin in the same classification, people just don't take it seriously. And if you put cannabis and speed in the same classification, people don't take that seriously.

"We have got to have classifications that make sense and that people will feel are credible."

Asked specifically if he thought ecstasy should be downgraded, he added: "Yes. I think that is right, looking at the science."

Shadow home secretary David Davis disagreed, saying: "Ecstasy has been responsible for deaths - Leah Betts most obviously, but others as well."

Betts died after taking an ecstasy pill at her 18th birthday party in 1995 and her image was used in anti-drugs campaigns. In fact, an inquest found Betts died of drinking too much water after taking the tablet.

Although opinion on the two men's performance last night was divided, Mr Davis was thought to have done well enough to reverse some of the negative impressions left by his lacklustre performance at last month's Conservative conference in Blackpool.

The shadow home secretary compared his rival's tactics to those used by Tony Blair to get elected in the 1990s and warned him the public was "sick of spin".

Mr Cameron fought back with the same weapon, accusing Mr Davis of imitating what he described as Mr Blair's habit of announcing policies with an eye on the next day's newspaper headlines.

Impressions from the debate may play a decisive role in the leadership battle, as many Conservative activists are expected to finalise their choice over the next few days.

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