This afternoon, a handful of MPs will gather in Westminster Hall to debate cannabis policy. It's like sending a policeman out to fight an invading army. We are witnessing a policy failure of epic proportions, and the debate parliament holds – one it has been forced to hold by public petition – will be conducted with a handful of MPs in a legislative attic.
Cannabis is the great snickering joke of drug laws, which are in themselves a disaster. The failure of attempts to control it over the last 50 years means it is socially very widely accepted and available almost everywhere. If you live in a city, you will have inevitably smelt it on the street recently. Nearly 30% of Brits will try it at some point in their lifetime. Nearly four per cent of 16-to-59-year-olds tried it last month alone.
And yet it remains illegal, with potentially harsh sanctions for those caught with it. Tens of thousands of people receive some form of punishment for cannabis every year, from official warnings at the bottom end to jail time at the top end. For many, cannabis gives them a criminal record which cripples their employment prospects in the future. Others – disproportionately blacks and Asians - experience the brutality of the penal system. For others, a cannabis warning from the police constitutes their first contact with the authorities and triggers a lifetime of distrust.
And yet you wouldn’t know how categorically and tragically the drug war had failed from the government response to today's debate. Some 220,000 people signed a petition demanding the debate – far above the 100,000 needed to trigger a possible debate in the Commons. The government response was to put out a statement ruling out any change of policy and chuck the debate into Westminster Hall.
Over 203,000 have now signed the petition calling for the UK Govt to debate cannabis legalisation! We are still awaiting a response.
The MPs responding to constituents' letters on the matter have issued the most banal recital of Home Office argument imaginable. There is no evidence whatsoever of independent thought. But at least they have the excuse of lack of interest or comprehension. The most severe criticism must be reserved for those who understand and do nothing. That includes nearly every leader of a mainstream political party, because one of the weird secrets of the drug war is that we are governed almost exclusively by cowardly drug reformers.
Jeremy Corbyn believes "the cannabis battle in the war against drugs is being lost". David Cameron believes it would be "disappointing" if radical options on cannabis law weren't pursued. Tim Farron believes "the war on drugs must end". Nigel Farage believes "the war on drugs was lost many, many years ago and that the lives of millions of people in Britain are being made miserable by the huge criminal element that surrounds the illicit drugs trade".
The 'War on Drugs' must end. Liberals of all stripes agree and if I am leader I will make the case based on... http://t.co/519vEXHTKv
Or at least, they believe those things until they attain power, and then they change their tune. Of these men, only Farron has really followed through, although Farage deserves credit for making the case to a party unlikely to agree with him. Having gone into the last election pledging radical drug reform, the Lib Dems are today announcing the establishment of a panel on how to create a legal market in cannabis. It's a rare instance of courage in a cowardly debate. Everyone else remains terrified of a presumed tabloid backlash. That's why the first thing Gordon Brown did when he became prime minister was give in to Mail editor Paul Dacre's demands and reclassify cannabis as Class B, despite there being no evidence whatsoever of harm.
But the tabloid backlash is largely mythical. The Sun has already been convinced of the case for drug reform. Like Corbyn and the home affairs select committee, it recommends a royal commission on the current law. Only the Mail holds out. But it does so in a manner which says more about the whims of its editor than the views of its readers. An Ipsos Mori poll from 2013 showed 53% of the public support the legal regulation or decriminalisation of cannabis. Forty-five per cent of Mail readers agree with them.
Ask Cameron what he thinks of drugs now and all the usual cut-and-paste nonsense comes streaming out his mouth. His previous convictions have magically disappeared. Instead, he repeats the Home Office mantra that drug use is falling due to their policies and that this would be the worst time to change course.
And it’s true that cannabis use has been falling. We're not sure why, but it’s certainly not because of prohibition. The downward trend started when cannabis was reduced to Class C and continued after it changed to Class B. Most of the sensible people in the debate (including in government) presume it is connected to the fall in smoking in general. Joints, which usually also have some tobacco in them, are probably being viewed by younger users with the same distaste as cigarettes.
But even this trend relates to between 2003 and 2010 – not 2015. Over the last few years, use has been largely flat at between six and seven per cent of the population. The rate of youth cannabis use stands at 16.3% - about the same as last year. The government's own data suggests that the fall in drug use "has gradually stabilised".
If tough laws led to a decline in drug use, we wouldn't be witnessing a rise in the use of ecstasy and cocaine or a dramatic rise in illegal drug-related deaths. The Home Office's own international comparators report found:
"We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country's enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country."
The Netherlands, which allows open cannabis use, has lower rates than in the UK. And the places around the world which are experimenting with regulated cannabis are finding that all the fear-mongering has been inaccurate.
Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have legalised non-medicinal cannabis use, with retail shops opening in Colorado and Washington last year and Oregon last week. The evidence from Colorado is that there has been no spike in cannabis use or increase in road accidents. The tax take for 2015 is predicted to be $125 million (£81 million). And that's not to count the economic benefits of citizens who have not received a criminal record for taking a drug which has proved immensely popular and largely safe over the last half a century.
The government won’t do research into the effect of a cannabis market in the UK, but the best quality data suggests we would save between £200 million and £300 million annually across the criminal justice system, generate between £400 million and £900 million in tax revenue, contribute to a reduction in the government deficit of between £0.5 billion to £1.25 billion per year and only incur costs of £85 million.
But few MPs can countenance such an obviously rational and healthy development. Out of some barely-existent tabloid threat, they turn their back on a policy which could generate revenue, improve health outcomes, and save thousands of young people from a criminal record.
The chasm between the reality of cannabis law and the political debate about it shows how disconnected our political class has become from reason. Evidence and logic do not matter, only the supposed instincts of the tabloids. It is a terrible mixture of anaemia, risk-aversion and moral relativism.
Today's poor excuse for a debate throws that failure into sharp relief. But the MPs who laugh off their own youthful indiscretions with cannabis are not the victims of their policy. It is the young people of today – especially the black and Asian young people - who are its primary victims.
Of all the various predictions of a left-wing disaster following the election of Jeremy Corbyn, few commentators noted the effect he might have on the Tory party. His election has dragged the Conservatives to the centre, and dragged the centre to the left. It produced today's extraordinary speech from the prime minister, in which he finally lived up to the moniker 'heir to Blair'.For the first time he is genuinely moving his party to the centre – as his hero did – rather than just paying lip-service to it.
This was the best speech David Cameron has delivered as Tory leader. It was one of those rare speeches which managed to accomplish several things at once. It painted a meaningful portrait of the kind of country Cameron was trying to create, assisted his internal allies while diminishing his enemies, boxed the Labour party into a corner and created an election-winning message for 2020. Cameron made the most of every opportunity offered to him by the general election win and Corbyn's selection as Labour leader. He has never looked more comfortable or happy.
In fact, he was so confident he strayed close to becoming smug. His prolonged recollection of election night was painful in the extent of its back-patting. His delivery is still workmanlike and competent, but not special. He is not a great orator and never will be.
He also has a strange inability to properly use rhyme or comparison. Several soundbite lines scan terribly, among them: "Labour: you're not for working people, but hurting people." There was also a painful sex joke about the Richard Murphy book 'The Joys of Tax'. "I took it home to show Samantha. It’s got 64 positions. And none of them work."
Mrs Cameron grimaced at that, as well she should. Her role at these events makes it seem like she has been cut out from a 1950s housewife magazine and pasted onto the modern world. She must walk with her husband to the conference centre, look on longingly as he speaks, laugh as he makes smutty jokes about her, then go on stage and smile as he points at imaginary objects in the middle-distance. She is silent, a human prop for him to demonstrate his normalcy. Corbyn and Tim Farron have both dropped this appalling tradition. Cameron must now do so as well. It is increasingly grotesque and embarrassing.
But that's where the inadequacies ended. In every other aspect, this was a barn-storming and triumphant speech. Cameron may not be able to emulate Blair's presentational abilities, but he is quite able to reach deep into enemy territory and plant his flag there.
He condemned the social failure which allowed children in care to so often lead broken, poverty-stricken lives, he promised prison reform so that incarceration was based on rehabilitation instead of punishment, he pledged more social mobility, lambasted the de-facto segregation which besets some British communities and outlined a Danny Boyle-style, modern, inclusive vision of British patriotism: "The proudest multiracial democracy on earth".
The policy was either contradictory or absent. Taking over failing social services will not be the panacea he imagines. The money needed to build new prisons won't be available from selling of the ones we have and anyway - the rehabilitation he imagines requires fewer people going to prison, a reality he was not prepared to admit, although a comment on electronic tagging suggested we could see movement here in future. The social mobility he envisages becomes less likely due to cuts to public spending – not least of all the cuts to tax credits he is still planning on implementing. The segregation he wants to destroy is cemented by faith schools, which he is unwilling to ban, settling instead for greater oversight. And his anti-extremism programme in schools is so vague as to be a major threat to freedom of speech.
Scratch beneath the surface and the policies are not there. But this is a conference speech - as much about rhetoric and signalling as it is about specifics. And some of the language was extraordinary. A passage about racial and gender equality was genuinely moving. "I’m a dad of two daughters – opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work," Cameron said. And for a moment, you actually believed that he meant it.
Cameron did not move left in a manner which seemed forced or nakedly strategic. He framed the shift in patriotic sentiment. He was not just occupying ground vacated by Labour – he was defining it in the terms most damaging to Corbyn and most comfortable to his own party. The Labour leader's failure to sing the national anthem was the DNA of this speech. It was in every line. Cameron went in hard on security as a lullaby to the right, then framed his vision of "freedom, democracy, equality" in patriotic terms. He had his cake and he ate it and he convinced the conference to not complain too much about the menu either.
Even as he reduced Labour's chances of ever winning in 2020, he was also laying the ground work for his preferred successor in 2018. The praise for children of immigrants at the Cabinet table – Priti Patel and Sajid Javid – as well as his celebration of a "multiracial" society was a riposte to Theresa May's hard-right anti-immigrant speech. The centrist message of George Osborne was clearly far more in line with the direction he was steering the party.
It was a full-house speech, accomplishing several tasks with each line: debilitating his opponents, positioning the party for electoral success, expressing a clear philosophical position and doing all of it with genuine rhetorical flair. It was everything Corbyn's speech wasn't: structured, tactically intelligent, convincing, thematically rich and capable of convincing those outside your core support of your argument.
As such, it will be treated as further proof of the insanity of Labour members for choosing Corbyn. But actually the speech demonstrated why Corbyn is a good thing for the British left, even if he is not a good thing for Labour. His move to the hard-left drags the Tories leftward too. This was a far more left-wing speech than Cameron would have delivered if Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper were scrapping with him in the centre ground.
If, as a left winger, you are aiming for the best possible outcome of a Labour government, the election of Corbyn is not helpful. If you are instead trying to minimise the worst possible outcome, then his election has been a tremendous success. Corbyn may not get elected. But today's speech shows that his opposition creates a more left-wing political climate.
If Margaret Thatcher's greatest achievement was New Labour, Corbyn's might be the new-look Tory party.
The weird thing about this conference season is how happy it is. The Lib Dems were all pleased as punch, as if nothing had happened since the last time they got together. Labour had this frenzied sense of joy electrifying the conference, not because they thought they were going to win – almost none of them really think that – but because things were chaotic and remarkable. And the Tories… Well, the Tories won the election. They actually improved the share of the vote for a governing party and secured their first majority since 1992. They've earned the right to be pleased with themselves.
They're trying to be understated about it, although it must be said they're not doing a very good job of it. Michael Gove told delegates he found commentators' mistaken predictions of a Labour coalition "hilariously" wrong. In the bars of the conference centres, there is a background hum of guffawing and back-slapping. But dig beneath the happiness and there is very little political content here.
The stands, which are usually dominated by pressure groups and charities, are now mostly shops. They sell scarfs, posters, clothing – there's even a Harvey Nicks one. You could quite literally do your Christmas shopping here. The fringes are deathly dull. I haven't heard anyone say a good word about any of them. The speeches from the conference floor are predictable. Theresa May says immigration is bad – surprise! Jeremy Hunt thinks cutting benefits makes people work harder – surprise! It's standard, meat-and-potatoes Tory party conference material. There's not even a story for journos to grab hold of, except for the first rumblings of a leadership fight which will take place in four years' time. It's hard to get excited so far in advance.
You can feel it in the conference hall. Speakers – even the big beasts like Gove or May - struggle to get any applause. And you could see it in the selection of Zac Goldsmith, on just 6,514 votes. He would have come fifth in the Labour London mayoral vote, behind David Lammy on 8,255. The Tories are where Labour was after Tony Blair was done with them: gutted. Hollowed-out. This is what cynical electoral strategy does to a political party.
You see the truth of that inside the secure zone, a nightmarish world in which everyone looks exactly the same - businesslike, in a smart navy-blue suit.
The Lib Dems are often hilariously similar to their stereotype – you really do see lots of brown socks and sandals - but they are also wonderfully diverse. You see teacher-types in scruffy jumpers next to Alan Moore look-a-likes with black hats, trenchcoats and long wirey beards. They're a diverse bunch. Labour has always had its androids, the smart-looking vacuous young men who rise through think tanks to become special advisers and, in their dreams, MPs, seemingly without ever having encountered a political conviction. But this conference was a strange combination of wild-eyed young people (the full army of Corbynistas had not had time to join in time for conference, but a few were there) next to august former ministers. It was eclectic and passionate.
Not so in Manchester. Here it is mostly men and they mostly wear the same suit. You don't even see those elderly couples falling asleep quite so much anymore. The Tory conference is now a corporate event, sanitised to the point of consumerism.
And yet outside it's a very different world. The protestors line the steel passage into the conference centre, shouting "Tory scum" at whoever walks by, like a red carpet walk of shame. They're not representative of anything really, except for a brand of left-wing protest which has been around for decades. They don't represent the north's rejection of Toryism, as they would have you believe, or Jeremy Corbyn's 'new politics', as the Tories would have you believe. They're just kids protesting – no more, no less.
A Tory source with close contacts in the police told me yesterday that they may be allowing the protestors so close to the entrance as a way of showing the middle finger to May, who officers particularly detest (the feeling is mutual). I don't believe that for a second and I'm not sure my source did either. But it was a nice story. Too good to check.
More likely, it is easier to control the interaction between protestors and delegates in the narrow corridor of the entrance, rather than by pushing them out to the side streets, where delegates could be attacked more easily.
But the fact those sorts of calculations have to be made at all tells you something important about the Tory conference. Regardless of how representative they are, those protests on Sunday – and the rally yesterday – were incredibly well attended. This will likely be the face of the Tory party conference for years to come: an increasingly empty corporate event, with protestors outside, spitting at those who walk in.