A night at the Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards

Osborne and Alexander could become Britain's most promising comedy double act.

To the Royal Hospital Gardens in Chelsea last night for the dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards (though there was some dispute over whether it was in fact the 25th anniversary; former Spectator editor Charles Moore claimed it was not). The venue was a cavernous, dimly-lit marquee, with the obligatory soft rock music accompanying the announcement of each winner and illuminated stars affixed to the ceiling - it had the feel less of a grand country house party than the wedding of a self-made Essex car dealer's favourite daughter but with the furniture hired from Ikea. "This tent is so lavish," said Nick Clegg, winner of politician of the year, "that it deserves Vince Cable's mansion tax." Meanwhile, the rain beat down on the canvas roof.

My favourite line of what was a splendid evening was from Danny Alexander. He and George Osborne received the award for "odd couple"; Alexander was wearing his Highland tartan, with a tastefully cut kilt. With Osborne at his side, he began thus: "It's obvious who's wearing the trousers in this relationship." An old joke, but nicely appropriate on this occasion. To which Osborne quipped, in reference to the topsy-turvy world of coalition politics, that "he's rolling back the state and I'm defending the Euro!" These two have the potential to become Britain's most promising comedy double act.

David Cameron, cautiously wearing a lounge suit rather than the requested black tie, was guest of honour and gave out the awards. He spoke with his usual fluency, teasing his new-found love Nick Clegg over his considerable personal wealth - and the many mansions in the family. Cameron referred to himself as a "middle-class boy from Berkshire".

Although he was suffering from flu, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson was on hand to introduce each of the award-winners - as Andrew Neil reminded us in his opening address "these are parliamentary not political awards" -- and the list of winners was spread across the parties, with even a gong for Caroline Lucas.

Peter Hoskin has all the details over at the Coffee House.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

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