|Since I kicked it all off, since I was the first to ask David Cameron the drugs question which has come to dominate the Tory leadership contest, I should begin by making my confessional. I was a user and for many years. I wasted huge sums of money and caused great distress to those who loved me with my serious and life-threatening drug habit. I was hopelessly addicted to that legalised killer, nicotine.|
As for unlawful drugs, I belong to that dull category of people who tried pot once, found it didn't agree with me and never went there again. That said, my mind has long been open to the arguments for addressing the misery caused by drugs through decriminalisation and regulation.
It was at The Observer's event at the Conservative conference that I put the question to David Cameron that has ever since harried his campaign. I didn't ask the question in the expectation that it would sabotage his chances. I didn't ask it because I thought it was the most supremely important question about him. Nor did I ask about drugs because I had some inside dope about David Cameron's past.
I just thought it was an obviously interesting, potentially illuminating and surely inevitable question which was going to face a man of his generation who seeks to be Prime Minister.
When we started these conference events four years ago, we wanted to do more than just interrogate politicians about their policies and the issues of the day. We also wanted to amplify the human dimension by exploring their life stories. The Observer conference interviews have had a strongly biographical element to which the politicians and the audiences have always responded positively.
It was at one of these events that David Davis first talked publicly about rowing so ferociously with his stepfather that he ran away from home the night before he was due to sit an A-level. There were people in tears at the Labour conference event where David Blunkett talked about still remembering the smell of burnt flesh when he was taken as a very small boy to sit by the hospital bed in which his father was dying of a horrifying industrial accident.
David Cameron has shot into the stratosphere in an astonishingly short period of time. I reckoned it would be as revealing to see how he dealt with the drugs questions as the precise contents of his answer. A few people have suggested that the question shouldn't even be asked, an especially surprising attitude when it comes from journalists. Never asking any pertinent questions about the personal histories of politicians denies the public the opportunity to take an informed view of the formation, judgment and character of those who want to rule us.
Politicians eagerly use the media to impress their life stories on the public when they calculate it may be to their advantage. They, as much as the media, have made the personal the political. As Tony Blair did when he became Labour leader, David Cameron hopes to be seen as the personification of change in the Tories.
He was delighted to talk to me about his relationship with his parents, his siblings and about his wife. He spoke movingly about his disabled son. By referring to it in a speech on Monday, he helped to put into the public domain the disclosure that a close member of his family has struggled with addiction to heroin.
He was expecting someone at some point to ask him the drugs question. When I began the section of The Observer interview discussing his reputation as a party animal at Oxford, he remarked: 'This was before the age of the very small, compact, handheld video, so I hope there isn't too much evidence', an interestingly nervous joke.
His initial response to me was to say: 'I'm human enough to have done all these things, but I'm too much of a politician to tell you what they were.' I thought at the time that this line was too pat to have been thought up in that instant in the Winter Gardens. A very senior member of his campaign team has subsequently confirmed to me that it was a blocking answer they had prepared earlier.
As the pressure on him has intensified since that interview, it has been frequently said that David Cameron is on the rack because he has refused to say whether he took drugs. That's not right. When I pressed him further, he effectively confirmed taking drugs. 'I had a normal university experience; let's put it that way,' he said. I came back: 'So you used drugs.' He did not argue with my interpretation of that answer, nor when I said: 'That's a yes, then' to his earlier response.
What he was evasive about in Blackpool, as he was when Andrew Marr followed on four days later and as he was again on Question Time on Thursday, is what drugs he did. My hunch is that it would do him no harm if he were to fess up to smoking a few reefers while at Eton and/or Oxford. Some juvenile hecklers on the Labour benches cried: 'Cannabis Cameron' as if no Labour MP has ever been acquainted with marijuana.
I can't see that doing him any damage with the public; a faint aura of youthful cannabis around their next leader might even be a positive advantage to a Tory party trying to rejuvenate its appeal. I doubt if most Tory activists - they have children and grandchildren, too - would die of shock if he'd had the odd joint.
What's untested is the public attitude about the use of harder drugs by British politicians, even as youthful mistakes. What David Cameron fears is opening himself up to the follow-up questions. What did you take? How often? For how long? With whom? How recently? I can see why he doesn't want to go there. His strategy has been to stonewall in the hope that everyone will eventually get bored.
His trouble is that much of the media as well as the camps of rival leadership contenders refuse to start yawning. They are determined to remain fascinated by the subject. Here is someone who presents himself as the fresh and straight alternative to spinning new Labour and sleazy old Tory. Earlier in the campaign, he called himself the 'Coke Candidate', a description he may now rather regret, on the grounds that he is 'the real thing'. That claim to represent a clean and honest approach is undermined if he cannot be candid about his past. I can't help thinking that the public debate about drugs policy, to which he has made some thoughtful contributions, would be more mature if politicians as a whole could be more truthful about their experiences.
The heat on David Cameron is the more scorching because his rise has been so swift. He went from also-ran to favourite in a fortnight on the basis of not much more than one slick campaign launch and one accomplished conference speech. So, his rivals have been seeking to fan the furore without being seen to exploit it. Ken Clarke has twice made a point of saying that he has never taken cocaine.
David Davis is still likely to be ahead in the first round of voting by Tory MPs on Tuesday, but there are many different observers who think his conference flop will make it very difficult for him to win the deciding vote of party activists in December.
George Osborne, David Cameron's right-hand man, took his children out to play on Hampstead Heath last weekend. There, he bumped into Alastair Campbell, a long-time mate and admirer of David Davis. The former Labour spinmeister and the shadow chancellor soon got to chatting about the Tory leadership race. They agreed that to regain momentum, Mr Davis needs an event with an impact so high profile that it might efface his conference failure. Neither could see where he would find such an opportunity to put himself back in front again.
It increasingly looks as though David Cameron can only be denied the Tory leadership if he makes a really stupid mistake or if a dreadful skeleton comes tumbling out of his cupboard. So, over this week's tense days of voting by Tory MPs, the spotlight is bound to be trained on him with a pitiless glare. And so it should be. He surged into pole position with a speed which has made his friends gasp. 'It's a high-wire act,' says one of those closest to him. 'We're trying not to look down.'
The drugs bust-up is the first time that he has ever been tested in the sort of firestorm that politicians of the front rank must be capable of dealing with. One of the many great unknowns about him is whether he has the character, the grit and the deftness to cope with pressure at this level. If he cannot deal with this successfully, then he is unlikely to be much use to his party as a leader, nor much of an offer to the voters as a candidate for Prime Minister.
His party needs to know whether he can hack it. So does the country. So does he. He may not think so, and I didn't intend to, but by kicking all this off, I now think I may even have done him a favour.