How the Conservatives were put out of joint by the shadow Home Secretary's cannabis policy

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Indy Politics

All seemed well in the Tory world as the morning newspapers were slipped quietly under the doors of bedrooms at the Swallow Highcliff Hotel in Bournemouth last Wednesday.

All seemed well in the Tory world as the morning newspapers were slipped quietly under the doors of bedrooms at the Swallow Highcliff Hotel in Bournemouth last Wednesday.

Michael Portillo's speech to the party's annual conference the previous day had gone down a storm and Ann Widdecombe's speech later that day - a highlight of the week in recent years - was eagerly awaited.

Labour's recent troubles over petrol, along with new revelations about the party's £1m donation from the Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone, had seen the Tories riding high in the polls, and the conference atmosphere was more than usually chipper.

But without telling most of the party's élite, Miss Widdecombe had lit a fuse which would prove hard to extinguish. Four days later, as seven members of the Shadow Cabinetadmitted having smoked cannabis, it would explode in the face of the Tory leadership.

As news broke on Wednesday morning of Miss Widdecombe's plan for £100 spot fines for cannabis smokers, more than a couple of corn flakes slid down the wrong way. One senior figure said: "I knew nothing about this policy, and here it was in the newspapers. I was about to give a live radio interview and there was no way I was about to go out on a limb on something like this."

Miss Widdecombe's decision to tell the press in advance about her plan may have been no coincidence, according to some sources. They said it was clear evidence that a rivalry between herself and Mr Portillo was threatening the shaky peace imposed by Mr Hague over the party in the past three years. Could the shadow Home Secretary have decided to brief her speech in advance to steal Mr Portillo's thunder?

One even more machiavellian notion circulating yesterday was the theory that Mr Portillo may have allowed Miss Widdecombe to go ahead with an announcement which was clearly going to backfire. It seems he discussed it with her twice beforehand, once at Central Office and once at last week's conference, without expressing any doubts about the potentially enormous cost.

Certainly it was not long after Miss Widdecombe delivered her speech that things began to unravel. The Police Superintendents' Association dismissed it as unworkable, saying it wanted to divert users away from drugs rather than punishing them for minor offences. Soon afterwards a gaggle of Portillo aides were heard giving the shadow Home Secretary the benefit of their doubts on the subject.

Since then, several senior Tories have weighed in. For one thing, such a move would criminalise a large part of Britain's intellectual middle class. For another, it would defy the view of the libertarians in the Conservative Party that too much legislation is generally a bad thing and that if people want to take drugs they should be allowed to do so.

Successive governments have chosen not to confront the issue of widespread cannabis use because it is not politically expedient to do so. They have taken the view that when it comes to drugs policy, there are more pressing problems.

Whatever the truth of the internal politics, preparations for battle are certainly taking place within the Tory party. But is that battle the next general election? Or could it be the leadership battle between Ann Widdecombe and Michael Portillo which might follow if Labour is returned with a big majority?

Loyalists who hope William Hague will be given a fair tilt at the election campaign are angry at what they see as premature jockeying for position. Mr Portillo, seeing the socially conservative end of the political spectrum occupied by his devoutly Catholic rival, has chosen a new, inclusive style to put "clear blue water" between them, they say.

"They have done themselves quite a lot of damage," one former cabinet minister said last night. "Both are allowing their supporters to fight a leadership election which is not needed. We have got a leader we have chosen, and he is doing well. I think you can control your supporters, and they should do so."

There has been much talk of in the past week about the "mods" who are challenging the hardline "rockers" in the Tory party. And yesterday's revelations were seen by some as just the latest instalment.

Could the seven shadow ministers - the "magnificent seven", as one aide called them yesterday - really have come out not as law-breakers but as Portillistas? Some sources scoffed at the idea yesterday. One of the seven, Oliver Letwin, had not been viewed as a "wet", and the description of him in Roth's Parliamentary Profiles as "very brainy and very dry" could be equally applied to one of his confessional colleagues, the shadow Social Security Secretary, David Willetts.

But certainly the shadow Foreign Secretary, Francis Maude, the shadow Culture Secretary, Peter Ainsworth, and the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the Environment and the Regions, Archie Norman, were already regarded as socially "soft".

And while several of those named yesterday denied having spoken to each other in advance, there was some evidence of a possible conspiracy to embarrass Miss Widdecombe.

According to the Mail on Sunday, whose journalist put the cannabis question to almost every member of the Shadow Cabinet, a senior party aide sparked its investigation.

"Ask some of them whether they smoked dope when they were younger. I promise you will receive some fascinating responses," the adviser was reported as saying.

That was in the small hours of Thursday morning, after police criticism of Miss Widdecombe's plan led to a frantic round of Tory back-tracking.

Later on Thursday there would be a moment of emotional bonding as Mr Hague imagined Mr Portillo as "a brilliant chancellor of the exchequer" and Ann Widdecombe as "a great crime-fighting home secretary". The insertion in his speech was intended to show that the Tory leader had assembled a strong, united team which was focused only on how its members planned to govern. Yesterday the suggestion had begun to look more like fantasy than reality.