Tory majority, or Labour lead in a hung parliament? What a way to kick off . . .

The election campaign begins.

The choppers are out in force, with aerial pics of the Brown motorcade making the one-mile drive back from Buckingham Palace. My former colleagues at Sky News are in "split-screen" mode, with David Cameron on one half, gesticulating and pontificating, and a locked-off shot of a solitary policeman standing outside 10 Downing Street.

So what's the mood inside the bunker? A Brown aide tells me that the PM has a spring in his step. "He's at his best when faced with a tough challenge but he knows he has a plan, so he's fine," says the aide.

And I can believe it. I doubt that the Prime Minister will be punching the back of the front seat of his Jaguar this morning. Not if he's got a copy of the Guardian inside the car with him. The paper's latest ICM poll shows the Tory lead over Labour cut to 4 points for the first time in almost two years -- a lead that, if replicated on 6 May, would leave Labour as the largest single party in the House of Commons.

The Guardian's Julian Glover writes:

On a uniform national swing, these figures could leave Labour 30 seats short of an overall majority. Even if the Tories perform better than average in marginal seats -- as most people expect -- David Cameron would struggle to establish a secure parliamentary basis for power.

Amazing, eh? Who'd have predicted it? Not the great and the good of the anti-Brown lobby or commentariat. And certainly not the arch-critic of all things Brown, John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday. Only a few weeks ago, John was telling me he had no doubt in his mind that Cameron's Conservatives would win a comfortable, double-digit parliamentary majority. This morning, according to a Paul Waugh tweet, John said:

Nobody, certainly not me, expected Gordon Brown to be in the position he is today.

Not quite. For the last time (I promise!), let me refer you all to the rather prescient column that James Macintyre and I wrote for the NS in June, in the wake of Labour's disastrous performance in the Euro elections, in which we referred to the "Tories' precarious electoral position" and concluded:

If . . . the Brown government can concentrate the country's attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election.

It's a suggestion, a prediction, that James and I have long stood by. Bring on 6 May!

UPDATE: Before I'm denounced by Tory trolls "below the line" as a "Labour spin doctor", let me apologise for failing to acknowledge above that there is, in fact, another reputable poll out today -- by YouGov for the Sun -- which tells a somewhat different story. The YouGov survey shows the Tories have reopened a 10-point lead over Labour -- which is, of course, the margin they need to maintain in order to win an overall majority next month.

So is the ICM poll just a "rogue", as some Tory sympathisers have suggested? Who knows? Don't forget: as a wise man once said, rogue polls tend to be polls you don't like. And even the YouGov survey shows an increase in the Labour share (from 29 to 31 per cent). So I still think there's reason for Brown, and Labour supporters, to be cheerful this morning.

 

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.