As it is now compulsory to fess up to one’s drug-taking past, I should probably admit that I have twice been in the presence of cocaine. On each occasion, it was at a party in the Nineties hosted by journalists from The Times.
Was Michael Gove, then a columnist for that paper, taking one of his incriminating snorts nearby? I have no idea. What I do remember is how furtive adults, acting like they were doing something thrillingly edgy and dark, seemed both tedious and oddly pathetic. (Cocaine makes you chunter more nonsense than a leadership candidate.) As the closest Himself and I have ever come to edgy is Playschool’s Through the Square Window, we made our excuses and left.
Allison Pearson's columns are published on telegraph.co.uk at 7pm every Tuesday
Gove’s admission of “regret” over using cocaine – under pressure of being publicly exposed it must be said – has cast an unflattering light on the Conservatives’ finest orator. It’s not so much the illegal substance itself. Having been the Minister for Justice and overseen stringent guidelines on a lifetime ban for any teacher caught with cocaine does, I’m afraid, set the bar pole-vaultingly high for hypocrisy.
I chatted to Gove once over dinner and have always thought of him as formidably clever and nice, as well as possessing those qualities that earned his native Aberdeen the title of Granite City. A determination that poorer children from homes like his own should have access to the same rigorous, traditional education as their privileged peers was especially admirable.
Now, it turns out that, far from being a rock of steadiness and flinty integrity, the booky, working-class boy was trying, well into his thirties, to ingratiate himself with a fast set in Mayfair gambling clubs when he should have been tucked up in his jim-jams with a mug of Ovaltine reading Adam Smith. Being socially insecure and easily impressed by flaky rich people are not qualities you want in a man who aspires to lead your country.
But it’s not Class-A drug use that rules out Gove from becoming our next Prime Minister. It’s much worse than that. By stabbing Boris in the back during the previous 2016 leadership race, Michael Gove personally ensured that we would have to endure three hellish years of May Purgatory. While Tory party members (a less stuffy bunch than they’re given credit for) might be prepared to overlook the recreational habits of 20 years ago, they most certainly will not forgive such arrant treachery.
At his launch on Monday, the Environment Secretary had the temerity to mock his rival for that earlier failure: “Mr Johnson, whatever you do, don’t pull out!” It was as if Mr Gove were laughing at Boris for falling in a lake when he himself had pushed him into the water. For a moment, that mask of courteous concern slipped. It was not a pretty sight.
Following reports of Michael Gove’s cocaine use came the week’s other shocking revelation. You may want to sit down for this one. Jeremy Hunt ironed his shirts at university. I know! That really is a troubling sign of deviancy.
Should the other nine leadership candidates now be obliged to out their youthful laundry habits? Did Esther McVey hang her smalls out to dry over the balcony railings at Queen Mary College? Was Matt “I believe in people” Hancock neatly balling his socks at Oxford or kicking them under the bed in a stinky heap? Boris’s boxers, we can be pretty sure, will have been scattered far and wide.
Brace yourself for more, much more of this kind of thing, as a nation that has had it up to the back teeth with Brexit must now endure six long weeks of a leadership contest which is already almost too excruciating to watch. Seriously, you find yourself thinking, are these really the best people they can find to lead the UK out of its present predicament? Cometh the hour, cometh the shower.
Several of the candidates appear frankly delusional. After years breathing Westminster’s rarefied air, they suddenly run outside telling us how “normal” they are. About as normal as little Rory Stewart who, like some intrepid Victorian explorer, boasts of having travelled into the dark interior to engage with fascinating primitive people. “It’s only bloody Warrington, mate,” cry the Gogglebox-watching masses. “You could have visited your own country before, you prat.”
Such are the bizarre levels of self-persuasion in the higher echelons of the Conservative Party that an endorsement from Amber Rudd is viewed as a major victory for Jeremy Hunt, when any sane person knows it’s the snog of death. Only in a world that has severed all contact with public opinion would Second Referendum Rudd, who has a majority of 346 in Hastings and will be obliterated by her Brexit-backing constituents at the first opportunity, be regarded as a valuable player.
“Serious times require a serious leader,” announced Rudd as she backed Hunt. What, you mean a leader like the useless one Amber propped up for the past two years, purely to thwart Brexit and causing massive, possibly terminal, damage to the Conservative party in the process?
Jeremy Hunt himself seems oblivious to the fact that the millions of Tories who defected to the Brexit Party during the European elections believe that Rudd, Philip Hammond and other Cabinet Remainers are the problem. They will never vote Tory again unless those elements are purged, as Esther McVey has pledged to do immediately should she become PM.
The fact that Hunt is gathering so much support from his fellow MPs is, I’m afraid, just definitive proof that turkeys will vote for Christmas. Especially if they’re promised a Cabinet position.
Let me be clear, as Mrs May was wont to announce as she launched on another fugue of obfuscation, if Hunt becomes PM the Conservative Party is finished. If Remainer establishment forces conspire to keep Boris off the final ballot paper, the Conservative Party is finished. The people are more likely to vote for a Prime Minister called Nigel than Jeremy or Rory.
All is not yet lost. I still have faith that the membership of the Conservative Party is less bonkers than its deafened-by-privilege leaders. Tory activists have a far keener grasp of what the public wants and of the kind of character it will take to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. Thank God they get the casting vote.
The tragedy is that we would never have needed this leadership contest if the correct choice had been made in the first place. Boris and Michael would have been a formidable Brexit double-act, combining granite and gumption. Such a shame.
Whatever he put up his nose, Gove blew it.
- Read Allison Pearson's weekly column on telegraph.co.uk every Tuesday from 7pm