Does Cameron want war with China and Russia?

Once again, the Tory leader reveals that he's a foreign-affairs lightweight.

So tell me again, Dave, why it is that you think Britain should renew Trident?

Are we really happy to say that we'd give up our independent nuclear deterrent when we don't know what is going to happen with Iran, we can't be certain of the future in China?

China?? Does David Cameron really believe that the People's Republic of China is a threat to the United Kingdom? That the Chinese, in the midst of supplying our high-street stores with much of their clothing lines, have prepared military plans to either invade and occupy the British Isles or nuke us to smithereens from afar? And, even if they had, does he think the UK's four Trident-armed nuclear submarines would protect his "big society" from the People's Liberation Army, backed up by 400 Chinese nuclear warheads? It'd be like the Na'vi versus the humans in Avatar - only without a happy ending for the Na'vi.

Random movie references aside, I do, however, have a serious point to make. Cameron is not qualified to be prime minister. The self-professed "heir to Blair", like Tony Blair before him, edges towards Downing Street with little knowledge of the world beyond the white cliffs of Dover. He is, as President Obama is alleged to have remarked, a "lightweight". Labour strategists have smiles on their faces. The Foreign Secretary David Miliband was quick to say that the Leader of the Opposition had issued "an insult to a fellow permanent member of the UN security council and to a country with whom we have just announced a close strategic relationship," adding: "David Cameron should withdraw this slur now."

Brown is fond of remarking that this is no time for novices. Given the state of the economy, and the "fragile recovery", he argues, we have to stick with an experienced leader who can handle crises and has proven judgement. The same applies on the international stage, where uncertainties, threats and conflicts abound.

Can we trust Cameron to handle Britain's foreign policy? He might do more damage than Blair ever did.

This, after all, is not his first gaffe. Last night, he suggested nuclear confrontation with China. In 2008, he implied that Britain, via Nato, would go to war with Russia over Georgia. As I wrote in my column in the magazine, back in January:

Nothing has better illustrated Cameron's inexperience and lack of judgement than his intervention in the South Ossetia conflict in 2008, when he rushed to Tbilisi to declare his support for embattled Georgia, which, he wrongly claimed, had been "illegally invaded" by Russia. However, as the former Tory foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind pointed out at the time, "Britain, France and Germany are not going to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia", adding that it was "totally unconvincing" to claim that the conflict wouldn't have happened had Georgia been in Nato.

As my colleague James Macintyre and I have long argued, Cameron has been given a pass by the press. But, I'd add, nowhere has that lack of scrutiny been more evident than on the Tories' foreign policy - both in Europe and beyond. Let's see if that changes next week, in the "foreign affairs" leaders' debate on Sky News.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.