Cameron's continued conjuring trick

These past few weeks could have been torrid for the Conservative leader if Labour had not been in su

Ideologically uncertain, unsure of a political direction for the 21st century, its leader tarnished by a series of poor decisions - the Conservative Party really is in a mess. Just over two years away from a possible general election, it should be heading for another electoral disaster in the face of a Gordon Brown premiership founded on political experience and a sound economy. Instead, David Cameron is defying gravity.

Cameron should be in grave trouble after the events of recent weeks. But since it was revealed that the Tory leader had been less than candid about his use of cannabis, his popularity appears to have increased. The Conservatives' eight-point poll lead would give them a slim majority at the next election, but what has Cameron done to deserve this?

His latest wheeze, of signing up his MEPs to the extreme Eurosceptic Movement for European Reform, is worthy of the craziest days of the Tory wilderness years. His only partners in this new "movement" are the Czech Civic Democrats, who founded their party in the very image of British-style Conservatism from which Cameron is supposed to be distancing himself (anti-Europe, anti-immigrant).

The mainstream centre-right French and German parties have poured scorn on the new groupuscule, with good reason. The Czech president and Civic Democrat founder, Václav Klaus, has been attacked for denying the existence of global warming. At the same time, his government, led by Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, has been criticised for failing to deal with discrimination against the country's Roma minority. The European Court of Human Rights is investigating why a disproportionate number of Roma children have been sent to special schools for those with learning difficulties. Imagine how Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard would have been pilloried if they had forged such an alliance.

Cameron's pledge to withdraw from the European Social Chapter, which guarantees paid holidays, maternity rights and minimum health and safety standards at work to British employees, provides yet another indication that he may not be quite as centrist as he seems.

Raised eyebrows

These past weeks could have been torrid for the Tory leader if Labour had not been in such a state of self-lacerating panic. Cameron's recent visit to Israel was less than sure-footed, with his criticism of Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem raising eyebrows. While the boss was away, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, was forced to clarify that policies such as tax breaks for married couples, a new system of border controls and drug treatment for addicts were not spending commitments.

Meanwhile, the contradictions in the Tory position on the use of the private sector and voluntary organisations in providing public services were exposed by his party's opposition to legislation allowing increased private provision of services in the prison and probation systems.

Why has it been so easy for the Tories? The obvious answer is: because it has been so hard for the government. Although the police are also investigating the Tories in the cash-for-honours affair, no one has been arrested yet; although the Tories supported the war in Iraq, they can claim they were misled like everyone else by the way intelligence was distorted. In short, the Labour Party is in government and the Tory party is not.

The launch of the anti-Brownite 2020 Vision campaign by Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke helped save Cameron from a potentially humiliating series of headlines. The Milburn-Clarke initiative was seen as deeply hostile by Labour backbenchers, although many of the same individuals would agree with the two former cabinet ministers that the Chancellor has not yet shown himself open enough to new ideas. The ongoing investigation by the Charity Commission into the Smith Institute, a think-tank closely associated with the Chancellor, has further limited the ability of Brown and his circle to engage with the wider policy debate.

Labour faces a series of challenges in the weeks to come. Will it be able to rally around a Brown Budget that will severely limit public sector spending? It probably will. It is Brown's last Budget as Chancellor and disloyalty will not go unnoticed.

It was once thought that the local elections and elections for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies would be seen as the final judgement on Tony Blair. But that is no longer the case. They will be the first serious test of party unity in extremis.

Then, barring an act of God, the real process of transition to a Brown government will begin. At this point, any dissenters might as well go away and set up their own party. They could call themselves the Social Democrats, in honour of the last time the party indulged in fratricidal bloodletting, thus permitting the Tories to become the party of power.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.