Today
Wed 22 September 2021

Does Boris Johnson’s administration really want to introduce a policy which would see its friends in the dock or dinner parties raided?

The Home Office is like a boring yet sinister colleague at an execrable work outing to a karaoke bar – it’s always singing the same old songs.

Along with its endlessly dehumanising approach to immigration and the usual ditty about ‘proper prison sentences’, it loves to sing the blues about “middle-class drug users”.

Every six months or so, the phrase floats back into press briefings or a ‘tough’ speech from the Home Secretary. And now it has appeared again, with Priti Patel – according to a briefing dripped to The Times – reportedly wanting chief constables to “make public examples of business owners and wealthy users to change the perception that Class A drugs can be taken without consequence”.

The problem is that the Cabinet itself is home to several examples of people who create this perception. One of them is the Prime Minister. 

Appearing in 2005 on Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson – then a backbench MP – said: “I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.”

This vaudevillian variation on Bill Clinton’s famous “I didn’t inhale” dodge made several appearances over the years. One notable occasion was during a 2007 GQ interview with Piers Morgan, when Johnson was prompted with “you once alluded to the fact that you tried cocaine but sneezed on it” – to which he replied: “Yes. I tried it at university and I remember it vividly. And it achieved no pharmacological, psychotropical or any other effect on me whatsoever.” Pushed by Morgan on whether “some did creep into [his] big hooter”, Johnson replied that “it must have done, yes, but it didn’t do much for me, I can tell you”. 

A year later, during his first successful bid to become Mayor of London and attempting to present a more serious persona, Johnson was interviewed by Janet Street-Porter for Marie Claire. When she asked him the cocaine question, he replied: “That was when I was 19. It all goes to show that sometimes it’s better not to say anything. I thoroughly disagree with drugs. I don’t want my kids having drugs.”

He then went on to discuss smoking cannabis while at Oxford: “That’s true [I did] but the stuff you and I may have smoked is not the same as what the kids are having now. I think stuff and this stuff is very, very dangerous.” 

After the Maire Claire interview was published, the Johnson campaign released a statement in which he shifted his story again: “To say that I have taken cocaine is simply untrue. As I have said many times, I was once at university offered a white substance, none of which went up my nose and I have no idea whether it was cocaine or not.” 

I suspect that anyone other than an Eton and Oxford-educated, Bullingdon Club-bolstered bluffer like Boris Johnson might struggle to make that defence work before even the most soft-hearted panel of magistrates. 

Meanwhile, Johnson’s frenemy Michael Gove, a former Times journalist and television presenter, indulged in far less obfuscation during the 2019 Conservative Party leadership contest. During the race, he told the Daily Mail: “I took drugs on several occasions at social events more than 20 years ago. At the time I was a young journalist. It was a mistake. I look back and I think, I wish I hadn’t done that.” 

Gove’s old paper The Times followed up its ‘scoop’ on Priti Patel’s latest claim that a clampdown would be coming with an unbylined column headlined ‘How Middle-Class Drug Users Like Me Get Away With It’. Unlike the publicly contrite Gove, the column’s author wrote smugly in the lumpen prose of a changed-out ’90s Loaded writer:

“Yes, we are hoofing up rails of expensive Peruvian bugle, but in a nice, mid-century modern-furnished environment, after some excellent food and fine fizzy wine and in the company of other nihilistic, rich and successful people… one needs a steady supply of the good stuff, even when at the house in Gloucestershire, and the dealers can be moonlighting as other, more legitimate services. Builders are known to run lucrative side hustles of drug supply to their employers. And business has been good.”


Slogans Not Seriousness

The newspapers are extremely keen on running ‘shocking’ stories about middle-class drug users because they make their readers feel both edgy and scared – but I suspect they would be rather less keen on having the toilets, desks, and boardrooms of their newsrooms swabbed.

Last year, Piers Morgan was asked on LBC by former Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson whether he had taken cocaine. He replied that he had made “admissions in the past” before descending into a reminiscence about the 2002 legal case in which Naomi Campbell won damages from the Morgan-edited Daily Mirror after it published pictures of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting:

“I had to go and give evidence for the first time in the dock and my QC, Desmond Brown, said, ‘Piers, I’ve got to warn you, they may turn the tables on you and they may ask you, “Have you ever taken illegal drugs?” and you’re going to have to be honest. You’re under oath’. So then I thought, ‘okay, I better come clean’. So I then came clean to my sons, to my parents, to my grandmother… I basically conceded – I’m not going to go into specifics – that I had partaken of the odd substance in my past… I went through all the fal- out of that. Got in the dock. Was there for seven hours. And he… never asked me.”

That men like Morgan, Gove, and most of all Johnson can make such admissions without consequence reveals the hollowness of the perpetual promise that “middle-class drug users” are in the Home Office’s sights. 

Even if it is accepted that hunting down and criminalising drug users from any part of society is a useful way to spend time and money, it is harder to crackdown on so-called middle-class drug users than it is to pad conviction rates by ramping up Stop and Search. 

More to the point: does the Government really want to see its friends in the dock, peer behind high gates, or raid dinner parties?

In 2018, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick made stinging criticisms of middle-class drug users back in 2018, making an upmarket strawman to rail against. She said: “There is this challenge that there are a whole group of middle-class – or whatever you want to call them – people who will sit round… happily think about global warming and fair trade, and environmental protection and all sorts of things, organic food, but think there is no harm in taking a bit of cocaine.”

Her words were echoed by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. It was sloganeering then and it’s sloganeering now – a scary story to tell newspaper columnists at bedtime. 

Robin Williams said that “cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money”. A promise of a crackdown on middle-class drug users is a Home Secretary’s way of telling you they don’t have any ideas. 

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