Cocaine, Mistress Pain the dominatrix and tobacco deals in North Korea -- it's been a busy week for Britain's Conservative Party.
The Tories are picking a new leader to scrape their venerable party off the pavement after three consecutive electoral drubbings by Tony Blair's Labor Party. The new boss will almost certainly be the party's contender for prime minister in the next general election, taking on Blair's successor, most likely Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer.
But what started as a fairly dusty contest dominated by health care and policy toward the European Union has morphed into a decidedly racier race, highlighting the generational changes that may be remaking a party desperate to regain its lost glory.
Two of the four candidates will be eliminated this week in voting that starts Tuesday among the 198 Tories in Parliament. Then, in December, the party's 300,000 members nationwide will pick between the final two. While the race is still unpredictable, political analysts -- and the nation's bet-on-anything bookies -- said the ultimate winner could easily be David Cameron, 39, the youngest of the candidates, who seems to have withstood a withering barrage of questions about his past.
Cameron has repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether he used cocaine during his days at Oxford University. The drug had never before been a central issue in British politics, but then last month the British tabloids published photos of homegrown supermodel Kate Moss snorting cocaine and the "did you ever" question was suddenly in vogue.
It was so much on the minds of the Evening Standard newspaper that its reporters swabbed toilets at the recent Labor and Tory annual party conferences and sent the samples off for laboratory analysis. Many of them tested positive for cocaine, the paper reported.
When a reporter tried the drug question on Cameron, a product of the elite Eton school who was just 12 when the party's iconic prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, came to power in 1979, he hedged: "I had a normal university experience, if I can put it like that," he said. Pressed in later interviews, Cameron said that he was "allowed to have had a private life before politics" and that "we are all human and we err and stray."
At the party conference, Cameron delivered a speech universally hailed as exceptional -- the coming-out address of a talented young leader from a new generation of Conservatives. By contrast, David Davis, 56, widely considered the pre-conference favorite, gave a speech broadly panned as dull.
Even after strong speeches by the other two candidates -- former chancellor of the exchequer Kenneth Clarke, 65, the party's self-described "Big Beast," and Liam Fox, 43 -- analysts agreed that momentum had shifted to Cameron. "He was clearly confident, charismatic and able," said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper. "They suddenly thought they had someone with the X-factor."
But the drug story stayed on the front pages, which some in the Cameron camp saw as their rivals' dirty-tricks response to Cameron's strong showing at the conference.
The allegations hit a new level Sunday with publication in the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror newspapers of a 12-year-old photo. It showed George Osborne, 34, a leading Tory member of Parliament and Cameron's campaign manager, sitting with his arm around a prostitute known as Mistress Pain, who alleged in the story that Osborne snorted cocaine.
"The allegations are completely untrue, and dredging up a photo from when I was 22 years old is pretty desperate stuff," Osborne said in a statement Monday. He said the woman was a friend of a friend. "This is merely part of an absurd smear campaign to divert attention from the issues that matter in this leadership contest."
Polls published in recent days show that Cameron's refusal to address the drug-use question has not hurt him and that a majority of Tories thought the issue was irrelevant. Analysts also said the image of Cameron being hounded by the tabloid media probably helped him, generating sympathy and name recognition.
As Cameron's camp was declaring its storm over on Monday, Clarke was hit with a new story. The Guardian published an article detailing how British American Tobacco is producing 2 billion cigarettes a year in North Korea, a Stalinist state with one of the world's worst human rights records. Clarke is the company's deputy chairman, a post in which he makes about $300,000 a year, said company spokeswoman Teresa La Thangue.
She said the company has been operating a factory, in a joint venture with a North Korean government-run company, since September 2001. She said that Clarke was aware of the deal and that BAT officials saw no problem investing in a country with North Korea's rights record: "It's not our place to tell governments how to run their countries."