These days of reefer madness may yet lead to a saner debate on drugs

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There are encouraging signs that the Tories' brief episode of reefer madness may be drawing to a close. William Hague's statement yesterday that Ann Widdecombe's zero tolerance policy on cannabis, announced only last Wednesday, was subject to "further consultation, discussion and debate" was one of the more dramatic U-turns of recent times. It also went quite a long way to trashing what little remains of Miss Widdecombe's credibility as a "home secretary in waiting". This was always going to be a difficult concept to sell to the voters, and it is surely only a matter of time before her energies are redeployed within the Shadow Cabinet. If there is a battle for the heart and soul of the Tory party being fought out between authoritarian Widdecombe-ites and libertarian Portillistas, with Mr Hague seemingly content to hold their coats, then it is the shadow Chancellor's allies who have won this particular round.

There are encouraging signs that the Tories' brief episode of reefer madness may be drawing to a close. William Hague's statement yesterday that Ann Widdecombe's zero tolerance policy on cannabis, announced only last Wednesday, was subject to "further consultation, discussion and debate" was one of the more dramatic U-turns of recent times. It also went quite a long way to trashing what little remains of Miss Widdecombe's credibility as a "home secretary in waiting". This was always going to be a difficult concept to sell to the voters, and it is surely only a matter of time before her energies are redeployed within the Shadow Cabinet. If there is a battle for the heart and soul of the Tory party being fought out between authoritarian Widdecombe-ites and libertarian Portillistas, with Mr Hague seemingly content to hold their coats, then it is the shadow Chancellor's allies who have won this particular round.

But rivalries and machinations within the Tory front bench only go part of the way to explaining why Miss Widdecombe could be so spectacularly and humiliatingly rolled over. The more fundamental reason is that the policy went so badly against the grain of public opinion, which has been moving inexorably towards a much more relaxed attitude to the private consumption of modest quantities of cannabis.

Fewer and fewer of us, it seems, mind about dope-smoking very much, still less consider it a criminal matter to be pursued by the police with zero tolerance and fixed penalties - a point powerfully, if implicitly, made by the recent "confessions" of seven Shadow Cabinet members. We're cool about soft drugs. Not for the first time, our politicians - including ministers such as Jack Straw - display rather less sophistication and common sense than the public or, indeed, the police.

But in all this concentration on Miss Widdecombe, there is a danger of neglecting the culpability of the Leader of the Opposition. It was Mr Hague, we should remember, who approved Miss Widdecombe's policy; it was he who endorsed it in his leader's speech to the conference the next day, and, above all, it was he who appointed her to the job of shadow Home Secretary, which appeased traditionalist grassroots sentiment, but which has proved to be an error.

Mr Hague's enthusiasm for Miss Widdecombe as a "great crime-fighting home secretary" is not quite in the same league as his support of Jeffrey Archer as a man of "probity and integrity". But it is another example of poor judgement.

Whatever else, the row Miss Widdecombe provoked has given us just a glimpse - admittedly inadvertently - of what may one day be called the "New Conservatives". It would be a party that complements its economic libertarianism with social libertarianism - although we would hope that this could be tempered by a "one-nation" social conscience. Such a revamped party could be more fleet of foot in outflanking Labour on issues as varied as liberalising the drugs laws, permitting civil gay marriage, and democratising the House of Lords.

Unthinkable? Today, perhaps, but thinking the unthinkable and a capacity to adapt to changing social conditions have proved to be formidable Tory strengths in the past. In any case, a few days of reefer madness may be a price worth paying for a saner level of national debate on drugs.

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