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This man of substances

William Rees-Mogg, The Times, 17th October 2005

I THINK David Cameron will probably still become the next leader of the Conservative Party. The extraordinary press concentration on allegations of his dabbling in drugs when a student has had two effects. The first has been to damage him. It has focused attention on his private life — and that of his friends and family — rather than on his campaign. It has robbed him of some of the momentum he had gained by his excellent speech at the Blackpool conference. It has made the public think of him more in terms of cannabis than of party modernisation. He has inevitably left an evasive impression on some viewers, though not on me.

On the other hand, this press obsession has totally obliterated his three rivals. Occasionally one of the other contenders has risen to the surface, spluttering that he has never taken cocaine, before sinking back below the waves of public indifference. When they were noticed, it was almost always in the context of Mr Cameron’s drug experiences at Oxford, not of their own actions or policies.

I am far from accepting the old maxim that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. I have too often seen it proved untrue. But it is possible for one man’s bad publicity to generate a white-out of publicity for his neighbours.

I take a more legalistic view of the appropriateness of these questions. Essentially the question “have you ever taken illegal drugs?” is what the lawyers call a fishing expedition; it is not based on any specific allegation. In court, as I understand it, fishing expeditions are not an acceptable form of cross-examination. Anyone is perfectly entitled not to answer.

If a newspaper were in a position to say “we have a witness who saw you taking cannabis in the Bodleian library” — I mention the least likely Oxford location — “at 10am on the morning of April 4, 1988”, that would be an entirely proper question that demanded a frank answer. That could be “yes, I did”, “no, I didn’t”, “it was my cousin from Düsseldorf”, or whatever the true answer might be.

If fishing expeditions are to be fair, they have to be universal.

Everyone must be asked the same question. We do apply this principle of the universal fishing expedition to the financial interests of Members of Parliament. It would be possible to extend that to their drug-taking, or indeed to the sexual conduct. Entries could be required in the Parliamentary Register under separate headings for “normal fornication”, “adultery”, “gay relationships”, “special discipline with Miss Smacker”, and so on. The same regular and universal enquiry could be applied to drugs. But it is not.

In my view, politicians are best advised to refuse to give specific answers to fishing expeditions on drugs, sex, or those financial matters which are not required by the register. Certainly, every answer, as Mr Cameron has already found out, inevitably leads to further questions.

Indeed, the real threat to David Cameron’s support is that voters may feel that these questions will never go away, or, even worse, that sooner or later a killer story will appear. The public is probably more tolerant of student experiments with drugs than has been supposed. But any politician who took Class A drugs after becoming a parliamentary candidate would be in an impossible position. There is a boundary to tolerance, though there is no reason to think Mr Cameron has gone beyond it.

Apart from its effect of concentrating attention on him, with the implication that he is the only visible candidate for the Conservative leadership, the drugs publicity may also have benefited Mr Cameron by displacing questions about the details of his policies. At the start of his campaign, he almost disappeared from the contest because people did not know what modernisation might mean in practical terms. Since then, his policy has become somewhat more substantial, but it is still relatively thin. Liam Fox — the most underrated candidate in this race — has left a more specific impression in his policy speeches.

The reason I still expect David Cameron to be placed in the final two by MPs and then selected by the vote of the whole membership is that the Conservative Party is increasingly desperate for a winner. His Blackpool speech gave the hope that he had a winner’s quality. That has not been removed, though it has been weakened by the recent publicity.

The other three candidates have not moved forward. Kenneth Clarke is a jovial old fellow, vaguely Falstaffian in character. But the whole point of the Falstaff story is that he did not become Henry V’s prime minister. I think voters are less worried about Europe than they probably should be, but more disconcerted by the size of Ken’s tummy. Could such a Falstaffian girth last the course of four years leading an Opposition and then fighting a general election campaign? David Davis has not recovered from his Blackpool speech.

The Conservatives have not had their Clause 4 moment, but they did have their Tony Blair moment. They saw what a likeable young man with an agreeable manner and a fluent tongue could do for them. To win, the Tories must regain the lead among the under-35s, where the Liberal Democrats went ahead at the last election. Could David Davis do that? Liam Fox needs more of a team. In practice, I believe he could get William Hague to join him, and that a Fox-Hague partnership would be very strong. But he cannot get Mr Hague to back him unless he becomes leader and, barring accidents, he cannot become leader unless he gets Mr Hague to join him.

Liam Fox is the alternative young candidate to David Cameron and the alternative real Conservative to David Davis, but the final selection is likely to be between Cameron and Davis and Mr Cameron has the stronger personal magnetism. He could be the next Conservative leader, he could be the next Conservative Prime Minister. If he is still around on Thursday night.

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