It’s ridiculous that Michael Gove’s drug use could prevent him becoming Tory leader

Michael Gove

Britain’s Conservative party is having a nervous breakdown. It is turning on the most competent candidate for its leadership, Michael Gove, for sniffing cocaine in his former life as a journalist. Unlike his chief rival, Boris Johnson, who joked about his drug-taking, Gove told the sober truth. The jokester laughs, the honest man is a hypocrite.

Eight out of the 11 Tory leadership candidates have at various times admitted to taking illegal drugs. But all politics is hypocrisy, an edifice of pretence, insincerity and deviousness. The art lies in how you pull it off. Johnson has been a master of this art all his life. As his hero Winston Churchill showed, unsuitability for high office is no bar, given enough humour, personality and the gift of the gab. When a strait-laced Southern Baptist was asked how she could possibly vote for Donald Trump, she replied: “We are all sinners. He is one of us.”

Gove has shown himself capable in three high offices of state: education, justice and the environment. Amid the current no-deal Brexit hysteria, he has shown a pragmatism that offers some hope of reaching a plausible trading relationship with the EU. His qualities at present are of critical importance to the state. That a 20-year-old indiscretion with cocaine should negate them is totally absurd. It suggests the Tory party is unserious about governing the country.

Gove’s leading rivals, Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, are relying on a far more critical hypocrisy than he has shown, that those who vote for them can rely on them backing down on “no-deal Brexit” when the crunch comes. Some Johnson supporters even offer his track record of unreliability and mendacity as evidence that he can effect the necessary U-turn as required.

It would now be sensible for all candidates to exonerate Gove – and each other – of past misdemeanours, and agree to stick to what matters: how best to steer the nation through the next six months. But if that proves more than political human nature can handle, some good could yet come of this. If Gove crashes out of the race, he might atone for his past sins by performing one great public service.

The regulation – or non-regulation – of narcotics is quite simply the greatest social curse in modern Britain. It blights every corner of society. Gove should lead a campaign to end the indefensible 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, and set Britain on the road to reform now being pursued by governments on both sides of the Atlantic. As a former justice secretary, and former drug user, he would be uniquely qualified for the task. At present, eight out of 11 candidates for British prime minister are criminals on the run.

 Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist