The Contest to Replace Theresa May Raises an Unexpected Question: How Many Tories Inhaled?
Where to begin in considering the ten contenders to replace Theresa May as the Conservative Party Leader and, by extension, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Maybe with the drugs. Last week, Michael Gove, a former Education Secretary, admitted that he had used cocaine “on several occasions” when he was a young journalist—a “mistake” that he regrets. This was disappointing to those who remembered how firm he had been, at the Department for Education, about the dangers of the drug—he oversaw a policy that imposed a permanent classroom ban on teachers who had abused it—as well as to those who had hoped that there was still a corner of British politics free of farce. Observers of the Tory leadership contest have already been forced to untangle the painful, petty history of the broken friendship between Gove and Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, over the previous fight for the Party leadership. Now they have to weigh Gove’s story against Johnson’s own tale, told some years back, of the time in college when someone passed him some white powder. “I sneezed and so it didn’t go up my nose,” he said. “In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.”
Or maybe not. Johnson has told various versions of the story, including in a 2007 interview for British GQ with, of all people, Piers Morgan, the journalist and one-time “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant who, last week, had the only formal interview with President Trump during his visit to the U.K. “I tried it at university and I remember it vividly,” Johnson said. “And it achieved no pharmacological, psychotropical or any other effect on me whatsoever.” But, Morgan pressed, did any go up his nose? “It must have done, yes, but it didn’t do much for me, I can tell you.” And marijuana, or, as Morgan put it, “spliffs”? “There was a period before university when I had quite a few,” Johnson said. “But funnily enough, not much at university.” Johnson often projects, in an increasingly forced manner, a sense that he is still in that youthful period, and indifferent to the consequences—pharmacological, psychotropical, and, above all, political. He pushed Brexit with lies, and has based his campaign on the argument that the Tories must double down on irresponsible promises and high-handed threats to the E.U., lest they be displaced by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, which specializes in that area. And yet Johnson is the front-runner to be the next Prime Minister. One of the few serious rivals he faces is Jeremy Hunt, the current Foreign Secretary. Hunt has let it be known that, as a younger man travelling through India, he may have consumed a “cannabis lassi.”
How has it come to this pass, one might ask? May’s successor will not be chosen by voters, or even by Parliament. Instead, the Conservative Party has set up a multi-step process. First, by Monday afternoon, candidates had to get one Tory M.P. to nominate them, another to second them, and six more to pledge their support. The ten who managed to do so are Johnson; Gove; Hunt; Andrea Leadsom, the former parliamentary leader (“smoked weed at university and have never smoked it again since”); Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary (some cannabis in college); Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary (he’s left it to people around him to say that he tried cannabis as a student, and he hasn’t contested it); and Esther McVey, M.P., who is as hard a Brexiteer as they come (tried cannabis in university, but would mainly like people to know that she’s never tried cocaine, which is perhaps the new way of differentiating oneself from Boris Johnson). Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, and Mark Harper, M.P., both say that they’ve never used drugs. Rory Stewart, the Secretary of State for International Development, has a slightly complicated story involving trekking across Iran (the journey also took him to Afghanistan—he wrote a book about it), being invited to a wedding, and accepting an opium pipe that was passed to him. Because the family was poor, he doesn’t think there was much opium in it. Still, he regrets it, in large part because he later got a better picture of the damage that opiates can do in countries ranging from Iran to the U.K., where he was Minister for Prisons. Stewart is probably the most serious and thoughtful of the candidates. He is not seen as having much of a chance.
The second stage of the selection process starts on Thursday, when all of the Tory M.P.s will be asked to vote, and the candidates who do not get the votes of at least five per cent of them will drop out. That will be followed by more votes, in which the threshold will be higher, and when only two contenders are left they will be presented to members of the Conservative Party—not registered voters but people who are active and enrolled in local associations. There are only about a hundred and sixty thousand such people, who are disproportionately wealthy or middle-class, older, and male. Many are said to be Johnson fans. He is already playing to them, with a tax plan that would give a break to people taking home between fifty and eighty thousand pounds a year. But in drawing it up he apparently neglected to account for how taxes work in Scotland; people there would be hit with a significant increase. Scotland, icing sugar—it’s hard to keep up with Johnson’s points of forgetfulness. He always seems to remember, though, that he wants to be Prime Minister.
Does it matter, really, that many of the Tory Ten did drugs? In some cases, the intricacies of the stories may reveal something about hypocrisy, or honesty, or even willingness to engage with a wide range of people, however recklessly. But drugs of this sort are, in many ways, old news; Barack Obama wrote about using cocaine and marijuana as a young man, and he did just fine as President. The bigger problem is another drug that every one of these candidates has indulged in and has been unable to shake. They all still believe in delivering Brexit—even those who were once remainers. That’s the Tory promise, and delusion.
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