My feeling is that he made an error of judgment in not answering the question directly when it was first put to him, and I should mention that last week I wrote a column in The Mail to that effect. One could understand that if he were a serial drug abuser in recent times he might want to avoid the subject altogether, but it seems much more likely that he simply does not want to talk about what he may have got up to as a student. Although such reluctance may be understandable, an easy admission of distant japes would have earned him no censure, and the subject would have been closed. A few years ago a number of Tories admitted to having smoked cannabis at university and no one even remembers their names. As it is, the drug issue threatens to escalate out of control, and if not closed down it could damage Mr Cameron's chances of becoming the next leader of the Tory party.
Mr Cameron does not enormously like The Daily Mail. He has told friends that he thinks the paper had far too much influence over Michael Howard before the last election, causing him to adopt right-wing policies that were unlikely to win favour with the centre-ground. (We should not forget, however, that it was Mr Cameron who wrote the manifesto). But whatever he may think about The Mail, he needs it over the next few weeks. Most observers think that, the brouhaha over drugs notwithstanding, Mr Cameron will be one of two candidates elected by Tory MPs, the other being David Davis. They will then submit themselves to the judgement of 300,000 Tory party members. Some people assume that The Daily Telegraph, as the Conservative Party's virtual in-house journal, has more influence over this group than The Mail. I wouldn't count on it. The Mail sells more than two and a half times as many copies as The Telegraph, and although it may be less in evidence in more genteel Tory households, the party is no longer particularly genteel. Which is why Mr Cameron needs The Mail's support.
However, he cannot give the appearance of caving in to a bully. Having refused to answer the question, he would look weak and inconsistent if he answered it now. But on Friday he was thrown a life-line by the London Evening Standard, The Mail's sister paper, which alleged that "a member of his family" has been undergoing treatment at a clinic in South Africa after a long, and now successful, battle against heroin addiction. The piece was sympathetically written, and hinted that his relative's problems explained Mr Cameron's unwillingness to talk about drugs. He now has an opportunity to make a dignified statement in which he could say that the revelation of his relative's addiction and his family's trauma frees him to talk about drugs more openly, and to confirm that he was an occasional user of cannabis a very long time ago. Tory matrons would weep into their handkerchiefs, and think how beastly The Mail had been for making such a fuss in the first place.
Of course, such a course of action would not be open to him if he has taken drugs in more recent times. The realities of newspaper deadlines mean that I am writing this before I see Sunday's newspapers. Will The News of the World or The Mail on Sunday carry sensational and damaging disclosures? It is impossible for me to say. If Mr Cameron has recently taken illegal substances as a consenting adult, he is almost certainly doomed. But my instinct is that he probably has not, and that he has done nothing of which he need be remotely ashamed. In that case he should make a statement along the lines I have suggested. Conceivably by the time you read this he will have already done so.
If the drugs issue were dealt with, my guess is that The Mail would support Mr Cameron rather than Mr Davis in a run-off. Later, if he is elected, Mr Cameron can put some distance between himself and The Mail. In fact, I would advise him to do so. There is no need to inflame the paper, but he can probably safely assume that its three to four million Tory-voting readers will back him in the end even if it periodically grumbles about his social liberalism, enabling him to target centre-ground voters without whom the Tories will never be re-elected.
All that is in the future. Unless he defuses the drugs issue, he risks losing everything.
Modest relaunch for 'Telegraph' may not win over new readers
Scarcely a week seems to go by these days without a newspaper re-launching itself. Last Monday it was The Daily Telegraph's turn. There was a certain moving about of furniture in the main paper, as well a new business section, which seems lively, if typographically a bit messy. The separate sport section is now a tabloid.
As you would expect from an editor such as Martin Newland, the whole thing was competently done. And yet for me the exercise had the feel of an interim measure. I cannot imagine that he or any other Telegraph executives seriously believes that these fairly modest changes will win the paper new readers. My prediction is that in a year The Daily Telegraph will be selling a few copies less than it does now. The paper loses more readers through death than it gains in life, however much it strives to tempt younger readers.
For this reason I am pretty sure that in the end The Telegraph will adopt a smaller format. Such a transformation is one sort of re-launch that has won new readers for The Independent, The Times, and it would seem (though these are still early days) The Guardian. As the graph continues to edge gracefully downwards, more executives will argue that going tabloid increases sales, whereas a traditional re-launch does not. It will be argued that the paper's older readers may not like the tabloid shape, but against that it will be pointed out that they have nowhere else to go, and also that, despite predictions to the contrary, The Times's older readers did not desert their paper in droves when it went tabloid.
Incidentally, Murdoch MacLennan, The Telegraph's chief executive, deserves our congratulations. Roy Greenslade, who has been taken on to write a weekly media column, is being paid some £100,000 a year. Simon Heffer would not have jumped ship from The Daily Mail for an annual salary of less than £150,000, and Jeff Randall, another new columnist, is said to be on £160,000 a year. I am in favour of columnists and journalists being paid as much as possible. Until now The Telegraph has not been a big payer. Mr MacLennan can expect representations from his established star columnists, some of whom may be trundling by on a mere £60,000 or £70,000 a year.Reuse content