The Tory leadership race has taken on a new turn this weekend with the Daily Mail splashing on Michael Gove's cocaine confession. The Environment Secretary tells the paper that he took the 'drugs on several occasions at social events more than 20 years ago'. At the time, Gove was working as a journalist. Of the experience, he says: 'It was a mistake. I look back and I think, I wish I hadn’t done that.' Gove goes on to say that he doesn't think this should rule him out of the leadership race:
“'I don’t believe that past mistakes disqualify you.'
The admission comes ahead of the publication of a book about Gove by Owen Bennett – Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry. So, how did it come to pass? According to the book, Gove first admitted to having used cocaine during the last Tory leadership contest in 2016 when his then advisers were putting him 'through his paces'. Gove replied by telling the team of his previous use and was told that if asked about it to use the answer David Cameron would always give: 'Politicians are entitled to a private life before entering politics.'
In this vein, Gove has made the point to the Daily Mail that when he took the drug he had no inkling that he would become an elected politician:
“‘Certainly when I was working as a journalist I didn’t imagine I would go into politics or public service. I didn’t act with an eye to that.’
This will come as a surprise to many of his friends and confidantes. The former Oxford Union president and biographer of Michael Portillo – who at one point lived in a Mayfair flat with Ed Vaizey (son of a Tory grandee) – was a self-described 'young Tory' whose advice was regularly sought by others wishing to become MPs. He was a regular (with Cameron) in the Tory dining club circuit. His election in 2005 aged 37 was entirely in keeping with the trajectory his life has been on since Oxford. To claim that he didn't "imagine" that he'd continue down this road and enter politics is - to put it politely - a stretch.
And there are still unanswered questions. He's 51. "More than 20 years ago" covers the age of 30 when he was a senior journalist, not a young undergraduate: this isn't a case of the Brideshead-style teenage hedonism of which David Cameron and George Osborne were accused. Was he using cocaine while he was News Editor of the Times? Or writing opinion pieces and leading articles? This matters because a hunt could now start for his old articles: we he as censorious about drugs as he has now become over wood-burning stoves? What were the Times leader columns saying about cocaine back then, and might those words have been written by a user of this drug?
This isn't fatal for Michael Gove. Just as people won't be shocked if we hear more about Boris Johnson's marital infidelities, it won't (or should not) really surprise anyone that an Oxford Union alumnus who lived Mayfair at a time when other young grads were living in hovels had fallen in with a decadent group of Tory princelings and partook in their habits. Journalists were hunting for a Cameron drug story throughout his premiership, without success. Why? Because it stood to reason. Anyone hanging out in those rarified circles - private school, Oxford Union, Fleet St Young Turks - probably was involved in Brideshead-style debauches.
This isn't the image Gove projects. And that's where the cocaine story is more damaging - it reminds people of his privileged background. One he acquired by accident of adoption, but his critics may use this episode to portray him as a product of the same Oxford Union sausage machine that spat out Cameron, Johnson, Osborne etc.