MICHAEL Gove is struggling to stay in the Tory leadership race, after admitting he was lucky not to have gone to prison for his “crime” of taking cocaine.

The former Justice Secretary denied having a drug habit, but confirmed taking cocaine on several occasions while a journalist around 20 years ago.

“It was a crime, it was a mistake, I deeply regret it,” he said.

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Home Secretary Sajid Javid, one of his rivals to become Prime Minister, said anyone who took drugs should think about the “lives destroyed” along the criminal supply chain.

Mr Gove, 51, faced fresh questions about whether he had committed a further crime by failing to declare the use of a Class A drug on official travel forms to the USA. He had to insist he would be not be banned from going to the States if he became Minister.

He was accused of hypocrisy after it was reported he wrote an article in 1999 attacking “middle-class professionals” who use drugs hours before hosting a party at which people took cocaine.

It also emerged he had enforced rules while Education Secretary than could have banned teachers for life if they had been caught taking Class A drugs.

The spiralling controversies overshadowed the Tory leadership, which enters its first formal round today, with the submission of nominations to the 1922 Committee by 5pm.

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Frontrunner Boris Johnson, who has so far kept a low-profile, used an interview in the Sunday Times to say he would refuse to settle the £39bn ‘divorce bill’ with the EU and would scrap the Northern Ireland backstop unless the bloc agreed to a better Brexit deal.

He said: “I always thought it was extraordinary that we should agree to write the entire cheque before having a final deal. In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said the threat not to pay was “absolutely unacceptable” and would damage the UK’s credibility worldwide, while fellow leadership candidate Rory Stewart called it “undignified” and said Mr Johnson’s Irish plan was “irresponsible”.

In other developments, Mr Javid offered to spend “hundreds of millions” on a technological solution to the Irish border question, while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be willing to renegotiate Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the right PM.

Mr Gove also said he would replace VAT with a simpler, less onerous sales tax after Brexit.

However the day was dominated by the Environment Secretary’s past cocaine use.

With possession carrying a maximum sentence of seven years, he was asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show if he should have gone to prison.

He replied: “I was fortunate in that I didn’t, but I do think that it was a profound mistake. I’ve seen the damage that drugs do.

“I’ve seen it close up and I’ve also seen it in the work that I’ve done as a politician. That’s why I deeply regret the mistake that I made.”

Asked how many times he took cocaine, Mr Gove said: “I took it on several occasions, on social occasions more than 20 years ago, when I was working as a journalist.”

Asked if his drug use was a habit, he said: “No, I don’t believe it was.”

Mr Marr quoted Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who said middle-class cocaine users had “blood on their hands” because of the violence involved in its supply.

His voice cracking, Mr Gove said: “It is a mistake which I profoundly regret, absolutely. One of the things that I also completely agree with is that the drug trade is wrong, that drugs wreck lives. That’s one of the reasons I have sought in office to try to help people to move away from that.”

He also denied being a hypocrite over his newspaper article attacking drug use.

He said: “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.”

Former Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey told the same programme she would willing to suspend Parliament to impose a no-deal Brexit if she was PM, even though it would mean asking the Queen’s permission, dragging the monarchy into an almighty political row.

In a pointed comment, Mr Javid told Sky’s Sophie Ridge on Sunday: “It doesn’t matter if you are middle class or not - anyone who takes class A drugs, they need to think about that supply chain that comes from Colombia, let’s say, to Chelsea and the number of lives that are destroyed along the way.”

Mr Stewart, the International Development Secretary, received a boost from a new opinion poll saying he and Mr Johnson were rated joint first by the public on who would be the best PM.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will today say he is a “fresh start” and the leader the country needs “not just for the next six week weeks or six months, but the next six years and more”.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab will use his launch to focus on energy and climate change policy, promising a raft of ideas “to harness the power of innovation and technology”.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford criticised Mr Johnson for saying he would step up preparations for no-deal Brexit “disruption”.

He said: “Scotland can do so much better than a Brexit Britain where our views are ignored, our interests sidelined, and our future dictated by the likes of these out-of-touch politicians in hock with the right-wing and politics of Nigel Farage.

“Scotland has huge potential as an independent nation in the EU – it’s future must not be left in the hands of Boris Johnson and this cohort of extreme Brexiteers.”