The problem for Michael Gove is not that thousands of Conservative party members will open their copy of the Daily Mail this morning and think to themselves: ‘Gove has taken illegal drugs, therefore he is unfit to be Prime Minister’. It is that Gove or his supporters will fall into the trap of trying to turn his admission into a virtue. How tempting it will be for them to try to say: ‘look, all Govey’s done is what millions of other students have done. That makes him a normal human being – unlike all these swivel-eyed moralists who would condemn him for it’.
But that is what would be fatal to Gove’s chances of winning the Tory leadership. No, it isn’t normal behaviour to take class A drugs – not as a student and not as professional in your early 30s, as Gove was when he snorted his coke. Coke might be widely used among the London media set, and in banking and legal circles too. But to the wider population it remains a minority activity, a criminal act indulged in by the feckless and irresponsible – those who don’t care that they are complicit in a murderous international trade, nor that they are helping to make lives a misery for the millions caught up in the consequences of drug abuse.
According to a Home Office survey in 2013, only 15 per cent of Britons have used a class A drug. Even cannabis, which according to many Metropolitan liberals is in such widespread use that continued prohibition is pointless, is still a stranger to two-thirds of the population – the same survey found that 35.9 per cent of people had ever tried any kind of illegal drug.
Cocaine is frequently described as being endemic in Britain, yet most of us don’t come across it. Only twice in my life have I ever knowingly met someone who has it on their person. Once, interestingly, was at a dinner of Times columnists – although Gove wasn’t present on that occasion and it wasn’t shared around, at least not while I was in the room.
Michael Gove has tried to pitch himself in this leadership contest as a man of the people. He is, as well all know by now, the adopted son of an Aberdeen fisherman. He has enthusiastically taken up what he sees as the environmental issues that stir the masses – although it's not difficult to imagine the sniggers he is going to generate now every time he mentions plastic straws and his efforts to ban them. Yet in his attitude towards hard drugs belies his real position as a member of the metropolitan liberal elite. On no issue – not even Brexit – do the opinions of metropolitan liberals divulge so strongly from those of the country as a whole. Endlessly, the former try to push for the decriminalisation, even the legalisation, of drugs – and time after time the public as a whole asserts a contrary view.
That is the danger for Michael Gove. So far he has said that he regrets taking cocaine, yet at the same time he gives the impression that he thinks it is no big deal. To most Conservatives, and to most people in general, it is a big deal. Any attempt to brush off the use of hard drugs as just one of those things everyone gets up to when they are young is not going to impress the hundred thousand or so Conservatives who have never taken illegal drugs, think it irresponsible to do so, and whose votes Gove will need if he is to be Prime Minister.