In a picturesque village in Michael Gove’s constituency there were whiffs of freshly ground coffee, carnations and controversy in the air following the revelations about him taking cocaine.
The mood in the sleepy Surrey parish of Chobham was of surprise, but also cynicism after the Conservative leadership candidate admitted taking the drug on several occasions at social events while working as a journalist.
In a traditional Tory heartland with a high street that includes a village pub, an antique furniture store and a horse-riding equipment shop, one resident joked that a Conservative candidate “would be voted in even if he was a mass murderer”.
Gove has been MP for Surrey Heath since 2005, but he is not held in high regard by all in this close-knit community. Many believe his cocaine confession was designed to increase his profile, but feel the damage to his reputation locally and his ambitions to be the next party leader will be minimal.
One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “He is trying to build his profile, it’s classic, to show he’s got something in his cupboard. Leak a bit of stuff that he can get away with.
“I don’t think it will affect him. I have been here for five years, Gove has been pro-planning then pro-green. It was a PR stunt, he has not been caught off guard.”
The man’s wife said: “I think everyone has got low opinions about politicians considering all the other stuff that has been going on. Boris [Johnson] was accused of lying to the public. Gove is not well thought of, he was booed at the Chobham festival.”
Among young people, the perception is that the former justice secretary was trying to appear more relatable and “gritty” in a saturated Tory leadership race.
Catherine Jones said: “With what goes on in the City, a lot of people can relate to him but not me.
“It won’t affect him among people who support him. With Boris being Boris, Dominic Raab being an anti-feminist, perhaps he thought there needs to be a bit of scandal.”
Cocaine has evolved in recent years from a drug of the monied metropolitan elite to being used regularly by all classes and throughout the UK.
An authoritative annual report on drug use in Europe published on the same day as Gove’s admission confirmed the UK as one of the world’s leading markets for the class A substance.
The Brussels-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) examined survey data from all 28 EU countries. It found that Britain had the continent’s highest usage rates among young people – 4.7% of British 15 to 34-year-olds said they had used cocaine in the last 12 months.
More than a quarter of the people seeking treatment for cocaine addiction in Europe, 20,290 out of 72,424, were doing so in the UK.
The latest crime survey for England and Wales corroborates the fact that cocaine use is increasingly normalised, with 875,000 people admitting to it.
Tony Saggers, the former head of drugs threat and intelligence at the National Crime Agency, described Gove’s admission as a missed opportunity for a former justice secretary who would have intimately understood the myriad harms and misery associated with the distribution and consumption of cocaine.
Saggers said: “I’d like to see him say that, on reflection, he was really stupid and the reasons I would never do it again and the insight that I now have is because of the wider harm that it funds; its links to organised crime, the exploitation of people.
“He needed to say: ‘I realise now how irresponsible cocaine use is.’ But he doesn’t seem to have done that.”
Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, chided Gove for appearing to trivialise cocaine use despite presiding as justice secretary over a system that incarcerates thousands of people a year for class A offences.
“There is a rich thread of hypocrisy where people are confessing to drug use but still condemning everyone else who makes the same mistake,” he said.
“They are still propping up a system where only unethical cocaine is available and anyone who chooses to use it can get a criminal record and wouldn’t ever make it to being a minister.”
Others agreed with the former Tory minister Crispin Blunt, the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform, who said the consensus on the “war on drugs” was collapsing and the time had come for all serious politicians to consider reforms.
“Sadly, Michael – like others before him – has delivered a politically crafted and deeply unconvincing handwringing statement of regret for committing a victimless crime,” he said. “The victims have largely been created by policy and the law.”
Mohammed Qasim, a research fellow at Leeds Beckett University who studies drug-use patterns, said Gove’s admission threatened to downplay the harm that cocaine has on poorer, less privileged communities.
“He’s saying ‘I’ve done cocaine but look at me now, I’ve done well. Cocaine isn’t as big an issue as you think it is’ … that’s what he’s trying to achieve, but if you look at the underlying issues associated with cocaine users, kids of 14, 15 using substantial amounts, families struggling with kids on cocaine … he’s trivialising what they are going through. ”