Cameron promises: no more EU U-turns

The PM insists that the date of the referendum "isn't going to change". But will Tory MPs allow him to keep his word?

After one of his most difficult weeks since becoming prime minister, David Cameron put in a polished and assured peformance on the Today programme this morning. The most notable line came on Europe, with Cameron declaring, "It doesn't matter the pressure I come under from Europe, or inside the Tory party, this policy isn’t going to change. The date by which we hold this referendum isn't going to change." That was a clear signal to Tory MPs that any demands for a "mandate" referendum or for an early vote on Britain's EU membership will be rejected. But having capitulated so many times before, first by promising to hold an in/out referendum and then by drafting a bill to enshrine it in law, it is an open question whether Cameron will prevail on this occasion. Here, for instance, is what he said about a referendum in October 2011: "It's not the right time, at this moment of economic crisis, to launch legislation that includes an in-out referendum. This is not the time to argue about walking away."

On gay marriage, having largely remained silent on the issue all week, Cameron finally took the opportunity to make a passionate conservative case for the policy. "I think it's important that we have this degree of equality and I say that as someone who's a massive supporter of marriage," he said. He spoke of "young boys in schools today, who are gay, and who are worried are about being bullied" who  would see that "the highest parliament in the land has said that their love is worth as much as anyone else's and they'll stand that little bit taller today." 

After recent speculation that the Tories are planning for an early divorce from the Lib Dems, Cameron said that it was "absolutely" his "intention" for the coalition to remain in place "right up until polling day". 

More broadly, he used the interview to hammer home what will be the Tories' message up until the general election, that they are "fixing the economy, reforming welfare and delivering more good schools". If Cameron can maintain that focus, he still has a chance of winning the next election. The question now is whether his party will allow him to do so. 

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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