Sophy Ridge: My Friday with George, off-message tweets and life as a woman in the lobby

Anyone for caulking, weekend chats with George Osborne, or treks out to Eastleigh? Who ever said life in TV was glamorous? Sophy Ridge writes the diary.

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Moody’s blues

Working weekends can either be intermin­ably quiet or ridiculously busy. When the ratings agency Moody’s announced that the UK economy had been downgraded from triple-A status, I knew it would be the latter. Moments later, I was swept inside No 11 to interview George Osborne for Sky News. Making announcements late on a Friday night might suit the markets but it does nothing for the social life of journalists.

Then, any thoughts of a quieter Sunday were quickly dashed when the papers were full of stories about the Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard. He is facing allegations of sexual harassment, which he strongly denies. Once again, I found myself being whisked into a room to interview the key player. This time, it was Nick Clegg, who angrily denied knowing about “these allegations” but admitted that he had been made aware of “indirect and non-specific concerns”. What exactly is the difference? Somehow a story about serious allegations had turned into an argument about semantics.

Juggling act

Writing of the allegations against Lord Rennard, I can’t help but feel that the Lib Dems would benefit from having a few more women on the airwaves.

They are hampered by having a meagre seven female MPs – and it’s not just the Lib Dems with that problem. Images of fusty gentlemen drinking whisky in smoky corridors are wide of the mark but, in some aspects, Westminster can still feel like an old boys’ club.

One high-profile female Labour frontben­cher told me that when she went to pick up a “spouse pass” for her other half, the parliamentary official simpered: “You must be so proud of your husband.”

This attitude can also sadly be found further up the Westminster food chain. I know of a current member of the cabinet who told a colleague that he didn’t believe working mums could successfully juggle top jobs in government with having a family. “They just can’t do it,” he said, implying that they were struggling to keep up with their male counterparts at work.

Suits you

Not that a political journalist can throw stones – the number of women in the lobby is an embarrassment. I remember being introduced to an MP by a male colleague when I had recently joined the lobby as a newspaper hack. “Nice to meet you,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Do you work for the fashion pages?”

I was dressed in a suit and was walking through Portcullis House with a lobby pass. Most people would have thought these were pretty good hints as to my job description.

Earnest of Eastleigh

The Rennard allegations are a row that the party could do without before the Eastleigh by-election, which pitted the two sides of the coalition against each other for the first time.

I’m at a slight disadvantage because by the time this appears in the magazine, the result will be old news. What I can say for sure is that this was the Lib Dems’ contest to lose. They have an impressive local base, with 40 of the 44 councillors who represent wards in the constituency. The party’s well-oiled by-election machine – masterminded by none other than Lord Rennard – was in overdrive at the time of writing.

The Conservatives were also desperate to win because it’s a test of David Cameron’s election strategy. The consensus is that if he is to win a majority in 2015, he needs to take about 20 seats off his coalition partners/ri­vals. If he can’t do it in seats such as Eastleigh, his party will become more agitated about its prospects in two years’ time.

A steady stream of Conservative MPs have jumped on the train from Waterloo or driven up the M3 to the old railway town – all determined to stick it to the Lib Dems.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. I was out campaigning with Eric Pickles when a man holding a young child opened the door. “How old is your daughter?” the secretary of state asked cheerfully. “He’s a boy,” was the rather less happy reply.

Coalicious cycle

The best thing about the Eastleigh by-election, however, has been the Conservative MP Michael Fabricant’s tweets.

This is one politician who was truly wasted in the government – ever since he left the whips’ office, his quirky sense of humour has been unleashed. “Just spotted Vince Cable in #Eastleigh looking like a war criminal with hat pulled over face #indisguise Lol,” he wrote, followed swiftly by: “My last tweet was distinctly not very #Coalicious!!”

He has also been tweeting the various notices pinned on people’s doors that show just how enamoured residents are of the political attention.

One read: “All political parties campaigning for the Eastleigh by-election, please do not knock on my door, please just **** off!” Another threatened to shoot campaigning politicians on sight. Who would want to live in a marginal constituency?

Caulking and talking

I was hoping to be able to drop some impressive-sounding cultural exhibition into this diary – but, alas, it hasn’t happened.

This is largely because I’ve recently bought a house and most of my days off are spent liaising with plumbers or making mad dashes to Ikea.

I’m now an expert in all manner of brain-numbingly boring things and have learned a lexicon that I didn’t realise existed until now: caulking, rising damp, olives that are parts of radiators rather than something you eat. At a party this weekend, rather than discussing the latest trendy gigs or hot gossip, I found myself in a heated debate with a friend about the merits of feature walls.

Taking a step back, I couldn’t help thinking: I’ve spent my Friday night with George Osborne and my Saturday night discussing DIY – who said TV was glamorous?

Sophy Ridge is political correspondent for Sky News. She tweets as @SophyRidgeSky

A bookmakers' odds for the Eastleigh by-election. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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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