The stalking horse

Sir Anthony Meyer’s son Ashley remembers his father’s doomed bid to challenge Margaret Thatcher for

That was the date when nominations closed for the election of Tory party leader: 23 November 1989. My father had put in his nomination two weeks before, hoping that a more prominent Conservative would rise to the challenge. This did not happen, and so my father became the “stalking horse”.

Rereading his book, Stand Up and Be Counted, (1990), I see clearly that my father had not planned this challenge well in advance. But he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Margaret Thatcher’s policies and style, and had been disenchanted ever since the early 1980s.

My father had expressed grave concerns about the wisdom of going to war over the Falklands in 1982 and had voted against allowing the US to use British bases to bomb Libya in 1986. In the recession of the early 1980s, he was keenly aware that, “for the poorest in our society – the very old, some of the young, the chronic sick – things were getting slowly and steadily worse as the affluence of the large majority equally steadily increased”. Thatcher seemed determined to say goodbye to One Nation Toryism.

Along with many other Tories, my father was alarmed by Thatcher’s Bruges speech on the European Union in September 1988, in which she painted a picture of a European superstate hell-bent on centralisation. In the June 1989 European Union elections, the Tories ran on the slogan “Stay at home on 15 June and you’ll live on a diet of Brussels”. He regarded this as cheap and tawdry campaigning, “crudely designed to exploit the average Englishman’s dislike of foreigners and his firmly held conviction that they are sure to swindle him”.

My father had no time for people with a narrow vision. He wrote that Thatcher “seems to be convinced that she is both invincible and infallible”. Many leading Tories have confirmed in their autobiographies that they began to question Thatcher’s powers of judgement at this time.

The result of the leadership vote was 314 votes for Thatcher, 33 for my father and 27 abstentions. Michael Heseltine wrote later that “Anthony had delivered a clear message”. Rather unwisely, one of Thatcher’s aides let it be known that she believed she needed five terms in office to achieve her purpose. She survived in power for another year.

My father was an enthusiastic supporter of Heseltine’s candidacy in 1990. Heseltine had long been a committed European and my father had greatly admired his work in Liverpool.

My father’s first priority was to be a conscientious constituency MP, which he achieved between 1970 and 1992. He had no wish to be in the limelight. However, he was provoked into his challenge by a leader who was becoming out of tune with the electorate on issues such as the poll tax and was damaging Britain’s long-term interests with her policy on Europe.

After he retired as an MP in 1992, my father spent the last 12 years of his life speaking to school students across the country about the perils of nationalism and the achievements and great potential of the European Union. He received many letters of appreciation from young people.

Why was my father’s commitment to Europe so strong? He had crossed to Normandy in July 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. He had seen a continent in ruins. Three of his best friends were killed in the war. Along with many others of his generation, he was determined that there should never be another war between the nations of Europe.

He was very sad, at the time of his death in 2004, that the Tory party, the once-great party of Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, was being led by politicians who lacked this essential perspective on history. With many of its leaders born in the 1960s, this is still the case today.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

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 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict