Political sketch: Digesting the culture secretary

Helicopters were scrambled - but Hunt survives.

You could tell it was really serious when they scrambled the SkyCopter to make sure he got to court without doing a runner; by the time he climbed into the dock he looked as if it had been circling his house, if not his bed, all night.

And so Jeremy Hunt, fourth cousin once removed (for the moment) from the Queen, enthusiastic Lambada dancer and presently Secretary of State of Culture Media and Sport, finally got to meet his fate - or at least its presence on earth, Robert Jay.

As befitted the auspiciousness of the day, Jay, chief interrogator of the Leveson inquiry, had made his own special effort, matching tie with trademark yellow framed spectacles, as he prepared to embark on the long-trailed evisceration of the hapless Hunt.

The victim, whose face looked as if it had been rubbed down with a chamois leather, swore to tell all truthfully and sat down quickly as befits someone whose legs weren't getting all the usual messages.

And his nerves immediately transferred to his arms as he windmilled his way through answers to the joy of any body language expert employed to comment on his behaviour.

Mr Jay, whose method of questioning is to quietly encourage his target to make a mistake, established that the Culture Secretary had been an early cheerleader for the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB. Indeed he was so keen on it that he dropped a note to the Prime Minister backing the deal.

As his Coalition colleague Vince Cable, charged with judging the bid, went about his business Jeremy happily stayed in contact with the Murdoch camp who alerted him that all was not necessarily going well.

Having heard that Hunt texted Chancellor George Osborne, who also moonlights as the Tories chief strategist (a vacancy expected to occur soon), to say he thought Vince Cable might be screwing the deal up.

But then suddenly Vince was outed as a Murdoch enemy in the Telegraph sting operation and PM Dave gave him the job of sorting it out.

Arms, hands and eyes were all on the move when Jay asked what was the difference between Vince's anti-Murdoch stance which got him the sack from the judging job and his pro-Murdoch stance which got him it.

That was dead easy, said Jeremy, because obviously, unlike Vince, he had a place in his brain where he could lock away all his personal views and never let them affect his judgement.

"I wasn't biased because I set aside my sympathies," he said.

As the inquiry digested this, gifted Mr Jay then moved on to the hundreds of emails and texts between Mr Hunt's office and the Murdoch empire which have led some people to take a less charitable view of what then happened.

It was all these contacts which led Jeremy's special advisor Adam Smith to fall on his (or somebody's) sword and depart the scene.

Adam Smith, "the most decent, straight, honourable person," according to his one-time boss, had become just too text friendly with News Corp's chief corporate greaser Fred Michel who "sucked" him into inappropriate language.

Yes, said Jeremy, he did consider his own position, but decided the right thing was to stay.

Mr Hunt, who looked as if he was losing weight by the hour, even provoked the sympathy of Lord Leveson himself who gently warned his rottweiler to back off from biting him too much.

The Culture Secretary did provoke his own slight pause in proceedings when he announced that having got the job of deciding on the BSkyB bid, "I had to make sure that our democracy was safe."

But it was an unnerved democracy-saviour who stumbled his way through the rest of the afternoon as Jay mercilessly worked his way through message after message leaving Jeremy making desperate attempts to hang on to his job and keep his patron the PM (due up himself on June 14) out of the firing line.

It was nice of Robert Jay to remind Jeremy Hunt that he is one of the sponsoring Ministers for the very inquiry that had just spent six hours examining his entrails.

As the Culture Secretary was finally allowed his freedom, his hold on the job seemed no stronger than it had been when he arrived.

Earlier, the inquiry heard that when Rebekah Brooks resigned Mr Hunt texted: "About bloody time."

Lets hope Dave's not taking notes.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.