As the entire country now knows, Michael Gove did cocaine on a “number of social occasions” twenty years ago. The media and his colleagues in Parliament have come down on him like a ton of bricks, and he has now almost certainly lost his place in the final two of this leadership contest.
One can understand why. Gove not only committed a crime by taking a Class A drug, he was also — as everyone is at pains to point out — a hypocrite about it: in 1999 he wrote an article in the Times setting out why he opposed what he called “London’s liberal consensus” on loosening rules on the use of cocaine and other drugs.
So far, so distasteful. The strange thing is, though, Gove is not the only candidate in this race who’s taken Class A drugs. Boris Johnson, the runaway favourite, said on Have I Got News for You in 2005: “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.” Three years later, he admitted that the HIGNFY account was incorrect, telling Janet Street-Porter in an interview for Marie Claire that he had indeed done cocaine when he was 19.
And, just like Gove, Boris has been hypocritical. In spite of his youthful indiscretions, he enforced — and promoted — anti drugs policies when he was in charge of the Met as mayor of London.
But while Gove’s campaign is in tatters, Boris has come out unscathed. Why?
The answer, though no one quite says it, is that Gove just isn’t cool enough to get away with doing cocaine. He has neither the swaggering charm of the old Etonian, nor the street cred of the boy who grew up on the estate. He didn’t get into Class A drugs because he was just too rich and glamorous not to, nor because he was part of a hardcore group of mates: he did it because he wanted to fit in.
And it is that, more than anything else, that seems to get up the noses (excuse the pun) of class obsessed Brits. Boris, as part of the Johnson dynasty, was playing to type when he did class A drugs — so his youthful indiscretions have been “priced in”. Michael Gove, adopted into a regional, staunchly middle class family, was not. So he has been told, clearly and firmly, to get back in his box.
For hundreds of years, the upper classes in British politics have — sometimes literally — got away with murder. Now, perhaps rightly, anyone who has “overcome hardships” has a leg up in Westminster. The aspirational middle classes, however, continue to be the victims or both snobbery — and reverse snobbery. And Michael Gove, the man who never quite made it to the heart of the Notting Hill set, has learnt that the hard way.