PMQs sketch: The final screech

Clegg nods off as Dave's last friend covers the whole decibel range.

When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote  that "into every life a little rain must fall,” he had not envisioned David Cameron or he would have changed the forecast.

After the worst night in his political life (so far) the Prime Minister returned to the House of Commons certain at last where to find his enemies: wherever he looked.

Bad enough to head for bed having been humiliated by his own side without being due a second slice of scorn at Prime Ministers Questions.

Indeed the House had a festive air about it as MPs on all sides celebrated their various parts in the drubbing of Dave, not to mention Nick (and nobody did) over the House of Lords.

Their mood was obviously helped by that wonderful parliamentary fact that wherever you are in the political calendar, another holiday is just around the corner; in this case a six week break starting next Tuesday.

Some seemed to have seized the chance to pack early and sadly amongst the missing was Hereford Tory MP Jesse Norman who played a large part in organizing 91 of his fellow travelers to desert Dave and described the Lords legislation as a “dead duck”.

MPs were hoping to check Jesse for signs of violence following reports of handbags incident involving him and the PM in the Commons late last night.

Mr Norman who, like Mr Cameron went to Eton and is old enough to have demanded Dave fetch his tea and crumpets, was apparently “escorted from the premises” following the conversation with his leader and is no longer tipped for promotion.

As Mr Norman weighs in among the “extra-large” size of MPs, observers were keen to see if Dave bore any marks of the conversation which his spokesman had denied could be characterized as an “argumentative exchange”.

Indeed there had been reports of the PM being spotted around the Commons at an ungodly hour this morning, no scars showing but with a face “like  a slapped ****,” to borrow a presentational technique seen this week at the John Terry trial.

But there were no extra signs of violence about Dave’s front as he took his place for PMQs although it was impossible to check his back for knife wounds inflicted the night before. 

As Dave sat waiting for his next humiliation his chief bodyguard and architect of the Government’s political strategy, Chancellor George, sat slumped forlornly in his seat. 

It would have been hard anyway to spot facial contusions since the PM had abandoned his usual practice of working himself up into a frenzy during the session by turning up already prepped.

In fact had he not been able to call witnesses to his whereabouts earlier his colour was such that you would have thought he had come straight from the tanning shop.

This then was the backdrop to the final appearance before the summer recess of not just hero-to-zero Dave but also zero-to-hero Ed Miliband.

Just eight short months ago you could have got better odds on Shergar winning the Derby than Ed winning the next election.

Indeed some of his own MPs would have been happy to splash their cash on Ed not even being their leader come 2015.

So the present PM must have thought he was living a nightmare as Mili uncoiled himself, to the cheers of those now happy to revise their opinions, to deliver an end of term report on his the last eight months.

Did Dave remember saying “I think I’d be good at it” when asked before the election if he wanted to be PM? asked the Labour leader. 

“Last night he lost control of his party and, not for the first time, his temper," said Ed as Dave’s regularly booked antagonist Ed Balls smiled so widely he almost swallowed his head.

The PM’s temper usually rises, like his colour, in direct mathematical proportion to his time on his feet. But having arrived in the Commons puced-up he was already in full Flashman when he got to his feet.

His own side - now apparently suddenly aware of the damage they had inflicted - tried manfully - and womanfully - to come to his support. So much so that MP Anne Marie Morris, sporting a suspicious sling around the arm that party whips are known to twist, spanned the whole decibel range to end in strangulated silence as she tried to show her leader that he still had one friend.

Meanwhile sitting silently by his side, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who described last night’s vote as “a huge triumph,” appeared to nod off.

 
Dave entered the Commons (unusually) pre-puced. Photo: Getty Images

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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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