- Video report by ITV News Reporter Robyn Dwyer
Tory leadership hopeful Michael Gove said he was lucky to have avoided going to prison for cocaine use but denied allegations of hypocrisy for criticising “middle-class professionals” who took drugs and wanted them to be legalised.
The Environment Secretary said “drugs wreck lives” and his cocaine use was a “mistake which I profoundly regret”.
In headlines overshadowed by his drugs revelation, on Sunday, Mr Gove also set out plans to replace VAT after Brexit with a “lower, simpler” sales tax.
The Cabinet minister has admitted taking the drug on several occasions around 20 years ago when he was a journalist.
Asked if he should have gone to prison, Mr Gove said: “I was fortunate in that I didn’t, but I do think it was a profound mistake and I have seen the damage drugs do.”
Cocaine is a Class A drug, the possession of which can be punishable by up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
The former justice secretary said: “I have seen it close up and I have also seen it in the work that I have done as a politician.
“That is why I deeply regret the mistake that I made.”
Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick has previously told middle-class drug users they have “blood on their hands” for financing a trade that results in gangland violence and the deaths of youngsters on the streets.
Mr Gove told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “I hugely respect Cressida Dick. One of the things that I would absolutely say is it is a mistake which I profoundly regret. Absolutely.
“One of the things that I also completely agree with is that the drugs trade is wrong, that drugs wreck lives and that’s one of the reasons why I have sought, in office, to try to help people to move away from that.”
Mr Gove faced claims of hypocrisy over a column he wrote for The Times hitting out at “London’s liberal consensus” around decriminalisation of drugs.
According to the Mail on Sunday, Mr Gove hosted a party the night before the column was published in which the Class A drug was allegedly taken by guests.
Asked by Marr whether he was a hypocrite, Mr Gove said: “No. I think anyone can read the article and make their own minds up.
"The point that I made in the article is that if any of us lapse sometimes from standards that we uphold, that is human.
“The thing to do is not necessarily then to say that the standards should be lowered. It should be to reflect on the lapse and to seek to do better in the future.”
The Environment Secretary insisted that his cocaine confession would not bar him from entry to the United States if he became prime minister and it was “foolish to suggest otherwise”.
However, ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt pointed out that one of the questions on an ESTA form, a document that must be filed in by those wishing to travel to the US, specifically asks the person making the trip whether they have ever broken the law in relation to drugs.
Speaking to Marr, Mr Gove also said “no-one asked” about drug use when he became a government minister.
He said “I don’t believe that I have ever on any occasion failed to tell the truth about this when asked directly”.
Michael Gove's campaign spokesperson has since said they have "taken legal advice from a QC", who is said to have found no issues with Mr Gove's forms for US travel.
A statement put out by the campaign reads: "We have taken legal advice from a QC who is satisfied that Michael completed his forms correctly."
On whether Michael Gove declared he had taken Class A drugs when he became a minister his spokesperson said: "There is no ministerial vetting form.
"According to the Cabinet Office, it has been the policy of successive governments that ministers are not subject to security vetting."
On Sunday, fellow leadership candidate Esther McVey admitted she had "never taken any Class A drugs", but had "tried some pot... when I was much younger".
When asked by ITV News whether she thought Mr Gove was fit to be the next prime minister, Ms McVey said she thought people "need to judge him on how well he's been [sic] as a Cabinet minister, and they will make that decision, I hope, as he's expressed huge regret on what he's done.
"I just hope people will view him on the merits of what he's done whilst he's been in office."
Home Secretary and fellow candidate for the Tory leadership Sajid Javid told ITV News hard drug users must "think carefully".
He said: "Anyone who takes hard drugs, Class A drugs, they need to think very carefully about the impact they're having not just on themselves but so many other people that would have been involved in bringing those drugs to their door."
He added there is a "whole supply chain" involved and that pften "very young people" are "used and abused".
In headlines overshadowed by his drugs revelation, on Sunday, Mr Gove set out plans to replace VAT after Brexit with a “lower, simpler” sales tax in what he called a "pro-business economic plan" designed to take on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's "Marxist message".
The Surrey Heath MP also pledged to cut business rates if he is elected the next Conservative Party leader.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Gove also promised to take advantage of Brexit to scrap the 20% tax currently levied on goods and services as a result of EU rules, in a move that could cut the cost of living.
The newspaper also suggested he would halt construction of the £56 billion High Speed 2 rail line in order to review whether it represented “proper value for money”, amid concerns about its spiralling costs.
The 51-year-old's plans to scrap VAT – a tax required as part of membership of the EU’s single market – bolsters his insistence that he would seek a loose relationship with Brussels after Brexit.
The proposals will be seen as an attempt to defy claims by some Brexiteers that he could attempt to keep the UK closely tied to the bloc.