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Smoke versus fire

The Times, Editorial, 17th October 2005

The past week has witnessed a slightly surreal media scramble to discover what David Cameron, or his friends and political allies, might have smoked or snorted at what age. It has had, to be fair, its entertaining moments. The photograph of George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, then aged 22, posing with a woman who is a “self-confessed cocaine user and prostitute”, while attired in shirt and tie as if at the bank’s works outing, will not have done much for his street credibility (or hers). Yet all of this energetic inquiry has so far not yielded much new evidence of substance (abuse).

It has not been a comfortable period for Mr Cameron, but the Shadow Education Secretary has retained his composure. He (presumably) knows what he did and when he did it. His description of himself having enjoyed a “normal university experience” — perhaps not the best of phrases, it is hardly compulsory to experiment with cannabis at college — has not been seriously challenged. He must also appreciate that with the number of reporters investigating his past, if the narcotics concerned were stronger than he has implied or if any usage continued much later than suggested, the truth will come out and he will be politically damned for having been less than forthright. As matters stand, however, he is surely entitled to the benefit of the doubt.

His rivals have not handled this matter as well as they might have. David Davis was right in his television interview aired on Saturday to stress the word “recent” when asked about this question. It might have been shrewder, though, if, despite the pressure on him to respond, he had steered completely clear of this territory. There would not have been the slightest impression that he was exploiting the issue if he had praised the personal qualities of his opponent. Ken Clarke has, arguably, been more calculating. On the one hand he has urged Mr Cameron to stick to his guns, on the other he cheerfully added that personally, he had never taken cocaine.

This strange affair has become a test of wills between Mr Cameron and sections of the hard-right press. It is a contest that, at present, reflects better on the politician than those parts of the media. It would be wrong to assert that the Daily Mail has behaved as if it were under the influence of mind-altering substances. It would be less unfair to suggest that the newspaper has stopped taking its medication in recent days.

In an admittedly bizarre manner, the past few weeks have been highly beneficial to the Conservative Party and the country. It was not long ago that this election was dismissed as boring and of little interest to anyone other than sad political obsessives. Dull it has not been. Conservative MPs have been able to witness how one candidate, Mr Davis, has responded to a media savaging of his platform speech. And they have now had a chance to see how another, Mr Cameron, has reacted under the most intense personal scrutiny. MPs will vote tomorrow far better informed than they might have been.

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