Euan McColm: Tory contenders admit drug taking but can’t face Brexit reality

Michael Gove has admitted to taking cocaine when he worked as a journalist
Michael Gove has admitted to taking cocaine when he worked as a journalist
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As Conservative leadership contenders line up to admit to drug taking, their plans on getting out of the EU seem more fantasy than reality, writes Euan McColm

As the deadline grows closer, things are getting downright weird.

Nominations to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party – and, by extension, Prime Minister – close at 5pm tomorrow and, as the clock ticks down, some candidates appear to be competing over which of them has taken the most dangerous drugs.

This most peculiar game of one-upmanship began when International Development Secretary Rory Stewart revealed that he had once, while attending a wedding in Iran, smoked opium. This he had done out of politeness (and which of us hasn’t taken a deadly narcotic rather than offend a host?) and he was very sorry about it indeed.

Inspired by this confession, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt responded with his own story of youthful drug use. While on a backpacking holiday in India, he “might have” drunk a cannabis lassi. That he appeared unable to remember whether he had, in fact, ingested a drink laced with weed suggests that it was heavy duty gear.

But this bizarre game did not end with Hunt’s admission. Yesterday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove upped the ante when he explained that, as a young journalist in London, he had snorted cocaine on a number of occasions. This, I’m bound to say, was quite the line to take for a man who hopes to lead a party which remains fully committed to both the criminalisation of drugs and the imprisonment of anyone involved in their use or supply.

It is, I suppose, easier to talk about taking illegal drugs than it is to explain precisely how one might succeed in achieving Brexit where May so emphatically failed.

May stepped down as Tory leader on Friday but will remain Prime Minister until her party’s 160,000 members choose who should be our next head of government. In the fantasies of those who wish to replace May, they will find solutions where none are apparent. Under their leadership, Britain will leave the EU on October 31 and wake up the next morning, ready to thrive.

Anyone who believes they will easily achieve this is either a fool or a liar.

May certainly made serious mistakes over her handling of Brexit. The most damaging among a litany of errors was her decision to pander to the Leavers in her party rather than trying to build any kind of consensus across the House of Commons where a majority of MPs voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.

This short-sightedness did nothing but further polarise an already divided parliament. She was never going to be able to please her party’s hard right Eurosceptic cranks – the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg, Steve Baker, and Nadine Dorries – but she tried. In the process, she earned the contempt of her own moderates and the vast majority of opposition MPs. And, of course, the Eurosceptics continued to despise her.

The legacy of May’s attempt to unite her party and deliver on the result of the referendum is a Tory Party in tatters, where even former allies are divided. Just a few days ago, the excitable and stupid MP Mark Francois declared that Michael Gove – a leading figure in the Leave campaign – wasn’t even a “proper Brexiteer”.

This right-on-right conflict is entertaining enough to watch but it doesn’t fill one with much hope that May’s replacement – whether that’s the career-liar Boris Johnson or someone else – will make progress where she stalled.

Countless commons votes on the issue of whether the UK should leave the EU with or without a deal and what shape that deal should take have revealed a stand-off that shows no sign of ending.

Nonetheless, it appears we are to indulge the fantasies of those who wish to lead our nation, and take seriously their suggestions about how things will be different under their glorious reigns.

We are to take seriously such nonsense as Andrea Leadsom’s proposal that she could legislate to guarantee the status of British citizens who live elsewhere in the EU and Dominic Raab’s horrifying suggestion that he might prorogue parliament in order to force through a No-Deal Brexit in defiance of the wishes of a majority of MPs. We are to entertain the No-Deal fantasies of Sajid Javid and Esther McVey and the renegotiation pipe dreams of Johnson and Hunt.

Reality be damned! It bounces off these pretenders to the throne.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the majority of MPs continue to oppose a No Deal. Furthermore, regardless of the proposals put forward by Johnson and Hunt, the EU has absolutely no intention of re-opening negotiations. In fact, the negotiating team has been disbanded, its members redeployed on other duties.

Unless a great many MPs who have, until now, held the sensible position that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be catastrophic for the UK, suddenly forget their principles, then the next prime minister, if he or she is a hard Brexiteer, will be as stuck as May was. Likewise, a more moderate PM will be thwarted in their mission unless those on the Tory right suddenly decide that they can live with an arrangement that maintains links with the EU.

The success of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the recent European Parliamentary elections may tempt the next PM to pander to the rigidly ideological Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party but to do so would be a short-term solution that would reposition the Tories further from the political centre.

A second referendum looks like the only way of breaking the current parliamentary deadlock.

But even that would not begin to bring this matter to any kind of easy conclusion. A second Leave win is unlikely to persuade those MPs who believe that would be a mistake to change their minds while a victory for Remain would only encourage Eurosceptics to play even dirtier than they have until now.

Any one of the candidates to be our next prime minster who believes they can easily succeed where May failed must be on drugs.