David and George enter Phase Two

If Blair and Brown were Lennon and McCartney, who are Cameron and Osborne? Mick and Keith? Ant and D

"It was a huge relief. At least we are talking about how we would run the country, not how 'green' and lovely we are." That was the reaction of one Tory backbencher after the Conservative Party published a consultation put forward by John Redwood on tax and red tape on 17 August. There were whispers that Redwood had launched the document at a time when Cameron was not around so that he could push ideas as party policy. This is not true. The Tory leader has rubber-stamped all the consultations he commissioned, safe in the knowledge that he does not have to take on board any of the proposals submitted. (These reports are merely consultations.) Four days later, another report followed and Cameron gave a measured performance on the Today programme talking about the NHS and social breakdown.

This is Cameron venturing into Phase Two, and it's about time. For weeks now the party has gone through dirge, exasperation and openly admitted surprise at the power of Brown's bounce. Lethargic MPs, candidates and party members have been getting irritable, and historically this has always been trouble for a party that refuses to see its own fickleness as an obstacle. A usually sanguine shadow minister mumbled to colleagues last week: "Heir to Blair? We're going down the road of Heir to Kinnock."

Cameron's "bare-knuckle" fight on the NHS, against the downgrading of services at district hospitals, has finally focused the Conservatives in the political centre. The shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley (affectionately nicknamed "Angela Lansbury"), is particularly comforted. It was a grimacing Lansley who had to sit through a press conference in May when he launched the health white paper with Cameron but received no coverage, as it was at the height of the grammar schools debacle.

News of a possible October election has not created much of a stir. At the time of going to press, after much debate in the media about possible election dates, only one "stand by your beds" email had been sent to MPs and candidates from the party chairman, Caroline Spelman. "It had all the urgency of a dental tooth scrape reminder," says one recipient. Back at Conservative campaign headquarters, possible election fever mania is also being treated with a laid-back approach. There is a reduced work rota because of recess and the girls while away the hours at the City Inn bar playing Musical Miliband Three-Way, a game whose complex title far outweighs the simplicity of the slightly rude rules.

In the past, the chairman has usually been in charge of an election campaign, but Cameron has appointed his shadow chancellor, George Osborne. This is certainly not a slight to likeable Spelman, but Cameron displaying trust and loyalty to a friend who backed him from the very beginning. David and George have a very different relationship from Tony and Gordon. They were both hot tickets in the Conservative Research Department and were special advisers before becoming MPs. A close friend says, "They have a very mature relationship: it's not quite Rolf Harris 'Two Little Boys' stuff, but they have similar backgrounds and an understanding of each other that has been cultivated over years."

A Cameron aide backing this theory says, "With Blair and Brown it was obvious that neither could trust the other. George and David share a strong sense of mutual respect. They instinctively know how the other will react, so conflict is avoided. You are more likely to see them with their wives and children at a mutual chum's BBQ than doing deals in a restaurant."

An ex-CCHQ senior researcher recalls when David and George were fledgling MPs and attending Prime Minister's Questions preparation for Iain Duncan Smith. "The pair of them would walk in, were slightly dismissive of IDS, would rip up the script, give their lines, eat a croissant and breeze out." He adds, "The air of confidence and self-assurance was magnificent. There was, of course, an inner desire to punch them."

Cameron and Osborne share a suite of offices, which allows them to bounce ideas off each other daily. There is no rivalry between the camps that work for them, and no sense of George wanting to be leader; he is comfortable in his secondary role. At the moment.

Osborne will come into his own this autumn, featuring in numerous glossy magazines over the next few months. Currently he appears in Esquire's "Ten admired men" (apparently the fashion director "came over all funny" when she saw the proofs of the young shadow chancellor shivering by the Houses of Parliament).

If the much-repeated analogy of Blair and Brown was Lennon and McCartney, who are David Cameron and George Osborne? Perhaps it is too early to say. Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Mick and Keith, Ant and Dec? The general election will be a test of their partnership.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

Biteback and James Wharton
Show Hide image

“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.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?