|'Top Tory, coke and the hooker" said the front page of yesterday's News of the World. It sounded lurid stuff, but the reality did not quite live up to its billing. The story was based on a 12-year-old photograph of George Osborne, now the shadow chancellor and David Cameron's campaign manager, with a woman known as Mistress Pain, who was, at the time, the girlfriend of one of his friends.|
The "Top Tory" categorically denies that he ever took drugs with this or any other prostitute. There was a sense of relief in the Cameron camp yesterday that this was all that the finest dirt-diggers of Fleet Street could come up with. "Laughable" was the verdict of one adviser.
The News of the World "exposé" was the latest twist in what the tabloids call the "drugs storm" surrounding the Young Pretender to the Tory crown. And it was more of a squall than a gale. All week, MPs have been waiting for the Sunday papers to land a "killer blow" on the shadow education secretary, and it didn't happen. Mr Cameron may not be in a hurry to repeat his claim that he is the "Coke candidate - the real thing" for the Tory leadership - but he seems to be riding out this storm.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have defended his right to privacy, arguing that what someone did 20 years ago, before he came into public life, should not affect his chances of holding high office. Yesterday, William Hague, not a natural soulmate of Mr Cameron's, pointed out - in the News of the World - that "some pretty big gaps" would be left at the top of most professions if everyone who had ever taken drugs as a student were denied a senior post.
There is no sign that MPs are planning to change the way that they vote in the first round of the leadership ballot tomorrow on the basis of the drugs row. Meanwhile, a poll, published in the Mail on Sunday, found that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters would want Mr Cameron to become leader even if he had snorted coke. Most Tory activists have children - or know children of friends - who have taken drugs. In fact, many of them rather like the idea of a leader who admits to having been "normal" in his youth.
It may be going too far to say that the shadow education secretary's position has been strengthened by the recent controversy (although he got a positive reaction from a Question Time audience when he said "we are all human and we err and stray"), but his standing in the contest does not appear to have been weakened by it. The valid criticism that he has never been tested is harder to make after a media storm during which he has held his nerve well. Mr Cameron remains the favourite to win the leadership.
And if the indications are right, then this could be a crucial turning point for the Tory party. To understand the significance, you have to look at the context. The "drugs storm" has never really been about cannabis, or cocaine: it has been an attempt by certain elements in the party to undermine the most overtly modernising candidate in the leadership contest.
By creating the impression that the Notting Hill Tories are all decadent hedonists whose brains have been addled by drugs, their enemies hope to somehow imply that social liberals are dangerous libertines who would, if allowed anywhere near to power, let the country go to the dogs. It is an old, and underhand, tactic.
In 2001, Iain Duncan Smith used Michael Portillo's admission that he had had "some homosexual experiences" in his youth to destroy his leadership campaign by concentrating the party's attention on his attitude to gay marriage, section 28 and drugs.
A similar thing has been happening in recent weeks. Edward Leigh, spokesman for the Right-wing Cornerstone group of MPs, wants Mr Cameron to "come clean" about his experiences of drugs, because he would like to see his candidacy - and therefore his ideas for changing the party - killed off. The Daily Mail, similarly, is not really interested in Mr Cameron's views on drugs policy: it dislikes his wider proposals for reform.
David Davis tried to exploit the issue last week when he said that "recent" drug use should disqualify a candidate from becoming leader. Privately, his supporters have been stirring the drugs pot for some time: his conference speech call for the Tories to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment - "Never speak ill of a fellow conservative" - does not seem to have sunk into some of the more brutish members of the shadow home secretary's campaign team.
In 2001, Mr Duncan Smith dismissed Mr Portillo's modernising ideas as "pashmina politics"; in this leadership contest, Mr Davis' supporters have been criticising Mr Cameron's "aromatherapy" launch and "yummy mummy" campaign. As they did before, the traditionalists are presenting the modernisers as an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite. The Tory Right, aware that it has lost the political argument, has again resorted to playing the man, not the ball.
But something has changed since 2001. The Conservative Party has suffered another general election defeat and - as became increasingly clear at the conference in Blackpool - its members have now decided that they want to win. The grassroots activists are no longer the stereotypical blue-rinsed ladies who cling to life as it was in the 1950s. They have been convinced that drastic action is needed if the Tories are to get into power again. They are more interested in a potential leader's ideas for the future than in his activities in the past.
Labour had a "Clause 4" moment that showed the country it had changed. The Conservatives could be about to have a "Class A" moment that demonstrates once and for all that the Tory party has caught up with the modern world.