Commons Confidential

Mandy: Labour’s Simon Cowell.

Thirty thirsty MPs have made the most significant decision of John Bercow's reign: selecting the ten-year-old malt for the House of Commons shop (sipping from a shortlist of three, in order to comply with EU tendering rules). I hear that the drink-off in the state room was preceded by a vigorous debate as to whether the decision should be made using first-past-the-post or the Alternative Vote. Tradition triumphed, in a blow to electoral reform; but the middle bottle won, AV-style, in the blind taste test. Thick-headed tipplers later wondered if it was worth the hangover. Speaker Bercow rarely indulges; his whisky is a Macallan, just like that of his teetotal predecessor, Michael Martin.

Peter Mandelson isn't just re-forming the band, with Tony Blair and John Prescott as Gordon Brown's backing singers. The Labour Party's Simon Cowell is recruiting old roadies, too. Spied at a campaign session, escorted by Douglas Alexander, was Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Mandy's one-time little helper. Benji fled Britain for Russia when Blair quit No 10, but has agreed to return for a final tour. Other blasts from the past are expected. Weepy Alastair Campbell isn't alone in coming out of retirement for one last gig.

A Jack Russell named Mars may be another reason why the hokey-cokey "Cameron cutie" Joanne Cash is in the doghouse with the Westminster North Tories. The in-out-in candidate Cash looks after Michael Gove's pooch when the leader's pet (and shadow schools minister) is on his Surrey Heath patch. Notting Hell's more rabid Cons suspect that she prefers walking Mars to spending time with them. My snout muttered that they may not be barking up the wrong tree.

Yomping over Westminster Bridge, your correspondent was asked by a spotty youth in a fluorescent jacket to cross the road, as a "commercial" was being filmed. Prius-like, I sped on and bumped into the star -- a sheepish Nick Clegg. I can see him sold as political Flora: neither Cameron butter nor Brown margarine.

Mandy fancies himself as king-maker when Brown is dethroned. That may explain an intemperate text to Ed Miliband, advising the jolly green minister against fraternising with Labour lefties.

John Bercow is to introduce a Mr Speaker bottled ale to the gift shop. Old Peculier, perhaps?

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

This article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity