And now in the British press and social media scrum, it’s all about who smoked or snorted what and when.
Of the 10 candidates, eight have admitted to doing drugs.
The Guardian newspaper thought it necessary to post an explainer headlined, “High Tories: how the leadership candidates’ drug pasts compare.”
It’s a bit painful to watch them confess via Twitter to youthful indiscretions back at England’s elite universities, while trying to turn attention to what they might do about the Value Added Tax, for example.
It is also far from clear what the 120,000 or so Conservative Party members — the “selectorate” that will choose between two finalists — think or care about a former government minister smoking a fatty back at Oxford.
The whole row began when one top contender, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, admitted to using cocaine “on several occasions” in the past.
Several? The British press naturally wanted to know more.
There were quickly tabloid stories about a “double life” and a “fast crowd” in Mayfair casinos and Soho clubs, back when Gove was a young journalist.
Then it was recalled, cough-cough, that former London mayor and foreign secretary Boris Johnson — the leader in the race so far — had confessed to being comped some coke.
“I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose. In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar,” he told the BBC comedy quiz show “Have I Got News For You” in 2005.
Johnson admitted to trying cocaine and cannabis in his younger days, but he told GQ in 2007 that the drugs “achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever.”
Candidate Rory Stewart, Britain’s international development secretary, had the best story.
Yes, Stewart smoked a little opium. At a wedding. In Iran.
“I was invited into the house, the opium pipe was passed around at a wedding,” he told the Telegraph. But the family was so poor that they may have put very little opium into the pipe, he said.
And you thought Brexit was about chasing unicorns.
Oh, yes, the Tory leadership hopefuls are talking about Brexit, too. They each claim they are the only one with the bold, new credible plan for figuring out how to get Britain out of the European Union.
Critics say the plans aren’t bold or new — and fail to square up with reality.
But questions about the candidates’ pasts have somewhat eclipsed the debate about Britain’s future.
Following the well-trod path of politicians everywhere making non-apology apologies, the British candidates issued non-confession confessions.
They didn’t “smoke” marijuana in college. Instead, they “tried” cannabis. As if it were an Ethiopian dish. Or plaid trousers.
“At university, I tried cannabis, not very often as I was into sport,” said former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.
Former pensions secretary Esther McVey told ITV she had never taken the hard drugs. “But have I tried some pot? Yes, I have. When I was much younger.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Times of London: “I think I had a cannabis lassi when I went backpacking through India.” A bhang lassi being a cannabis-infused yogurt.
“Everyone is entitled to a private life before becoming an MP,” said Andrea Leadsom, who admitted to marijuana use in college.
The torrent of confessions even drew in poor Theresa May, who famously answered that the “naughtiest thing” she ever did in her life was run through a field of wheat.
A statement from her spokesman asserted that “Theresa May has never taken any illegal drugs.”
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, called the contest a “horror show.”
“Tax cuts for the richest, attacks on abortion rights, hypocrisy on drugs, continued Brexit delusion. True colours well and truly on show,” she tweeted.
The drug flapdoodle underscores criticism that the Conservatives are adrift — endlessly arguing and playing political games among themselves, while failing to attend to the country.
Taking drugs — pardon, trying drugs — is not the career-ending confession it once was, on either side of the Atlantic.
Barack Obama admitted to snorting a bit of blow before entering politics.
Bill Clinton smoked a joint — but famously didn’t inhale.
David Cameron never denied the rumors he took cocaine, and he went on to become leader of the Conservative Party and later prime minister.
“I did lots of things before I came into politics which I shouldn’t have done. We all did,” Cameron once said.
But Gove’s campaign, in particular, seems to have taken at least a short-term hit.
Alongside Johnson, Gove led the campaign to leave the European Union. Their rivalry thwarted both their chances for Downing Street in 2016. This time, political analysts thought Johnson and Gove could end up as the two finalists to face a vote by the Tory party membership.
Gove came out fighting during his campaign launch on Monday, which kicked off with loud music from Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) and Katy Perry (“Roar”). He was combative and punchy and fizzing with ideas. Many said he did a good job, even if journalists couldn’t resist a pun or two.
“Michael Gove is making a snortingly good launch speech,” broadcaster Piers Morgan said. “Lots of good lines. His chances of winning are not to be sniffed at.”
But try as Gove might to change the topic, questions about his cocaine use keep coming up.
What to make of the “revulsion of double standards,” Gove was asked, given that he snorted cocaine at a London dinner party 20 years ago and then went on to serve as the justice minister, presiding over a prison system that sent the kinds of people who gave him the drugs to jail. He also wrote an article in the Times of London in 1999 where he criticized middle-class professionals who take drugs.
Gove said he regretted his behavior — a “profound mistake” — and urged people to judge him on his performance as justice secretary.
When another journalist asked him whether it was time to call it a day, he said, “I’m in it to win it.”
It’s arguably the charges of hypocrisy that have hurt him more than the actual drug use. “Gove, Drug Hypocrite” was the headline on the front page of the Mail on Sunday; “Gove is branded a hypocrite after admitting using cocaine” was the headline on the front page of the Observer.
The only candidates to deny taking drugs are former chief whip Mark Harper and Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Javid told Sky News: “Anyone that takes class A drugs needs to think about that supply chain that comes, let’s say, from Colombia to Chelsea, and the number of lives that are destroyed along the way.”
Early polling among Tory activists suggests neither Javid nor Harper is a front-runner, but there are many skirmishes to come.