In this week's New Statesman

Honey, I shrunk the Tories: Are the Conservatives still capable of thinking big?

Cover story: Honey, I shrunk the Tories

In this week’s New Statesman Leader, we ask if David Cameron is capable of restoring the Conservative Party to its former status as “one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe”. The portents for the Tories are not good: 

If Mr Cameron is to win a majority he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. One would not wager on him succeeding where Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher failed. But to do that, he will have to decide if he is a One Nation Tory pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment he is neither.

As Jason Cowley writes in his review of the updated edition of Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s 2007 biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron’s views are an incoherent “pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism”. The comparison with Thatcher is unflattering:

Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict. 

We search in vain, Cowley concludes, for evidence of a settled Cameroonian world-view, because “[he] has published nothing of significance”.

It makes a startling contrast with the torrential literary output of one of Cameron’s predecessors as Conservative leader. In his review of Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, the former Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd examines Winston Churchill’s literary career. In the 1930s, Hurd notes, “Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output.” Clarke’s book, Hurd writes, leaves the reader with “a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with Clementine [his wife] and packed her off to bed”.

Also in Books, Vernon Bogdanor considers the legacy of a man who sought but never claimed the Tory leadership, Enoch Powell. Reviewing Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Lord Howard of Rising, Bogdanor writes: “Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right . . . But what did he teach?” Powell’s lesson, Bogdanor argues, was a pernicious one. The notorious 1968 speech in which he imagined “the River Tiber, foaming with much blood” because of immigration, “made Powell a hero”, Bogdanor observes: 

. . . particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgivable.

And returning to the present day, Rafael Behr argues in the Politics Column that David Cameron and George Osborne are failing to rise to the challenge of multiple crises that will come to define our era:

Moral decay at the heart of the British economy and the fracture of our European relations – these are not ordinary political challenges. They are the stuff of epochal change. Yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor respond as if peeved by the inconvenience and impatient for normal service to resume. They loiter at the gates of history, sucking on the fag end of the old era, unable to conceive of the new one.

Neil O'Brien: "Milibandism" as seen from the right

The leading conservative thinker Neil O’Brien argues in a New Statesman essay this week that it’s time for the right to take Ed Miliband seriously. O’Brien, director of the political think tank Policy Exchange, looks to the Labour leader’s past to offer a right-wing perspective on “Milibandism”:

His story could keep a psychologist busy for years. Just think: your beloved father warns you that Labour are a bunch of sell-outs. You ignore him, and after the 1997 election it looks like you were right. But subsequent events might make it look (to someone who grew up on the left) like Labour were in hock to high finance and Rupert Murdoch all along. So what now, if Dad was right?

Torn between fierce “pragmatism and radicalism”, Miliband needs to resolve his “split-personality dilemma” soon, O’Brien writes:

[W]ill he use the midterm bounce he is experiencing as an opportunity to duck, or to embrace difficult decisions? Underlying everything is a bigger question of who Ed wants to be. The heir to his father and the great breaker of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus? Or just a slightly leftier version of Tony Blair?

Kenneth Branagh Interview

In the NS Interview the actor and director Kenneth Branagh tells Sophie Elmhirst how he responded to his recent knighthood:

I see it as an acknowledgement that makes you think about every person you’ve worked with. My experience is so collaborative. A moment like this just seems – at this end of my life – to be a very nice thing to happen if you’ve been lucky enough.

And he discusses his impressions of the Swedish landscape from his time spent in the country filming Wallander:

[Y]ou look around and there are no street lights and you think, ‘God, what is this like in the winter?’ That may be the product of a weirdly overanxious, overthinking mind, but there is a sort of deadly or dangerous element in the land as well. It’s unforgiving.

In The Critics: A jazz special

A jazz special in The Critics opens with an article by this week’s Critic at Large, Christopher Reid. The poet was “slow on the uptake where jazz was concerned”, but now, listening at home on YouTube to Billie Holiday, “backed by a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of jazz’s finest that included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge”, he finds himself transported to “another dimension”. 

Elsewhere in the package, the New Statesman republishes a piece from 1960 by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who moonlighted as the NS jazz critic under the pseudonym Francis Newton (a name borrowed from a communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). Hobsbawm’s musical tastes were formed in the 1930s and 1940s, which might explain his disdain here for the “aimless” experiments of the “young modernists” of the 1950s.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • The NS economics editor and former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, David Blanchflower, weighs in on the Barclays market manipulation scandal and argues that Paul Tucker has to go
  • Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz debate whether political Islam, as a “conveyor belt” to terrorism, is to blame for Muslim extremism. Or is the real culprit western foreign policy?
  • Clive Stafford Smith on his 18-year fight to free Kris Maharaj from the failed US justice system
  • In Observations, Mehdi Hasan argues that testing makes a mockery of British citizenship; George Eaton on how the Qataris are snapping up prime London real estate; and Nelson Jones on Scientology’s credibility problem
  • Nicholas Wapshott analyses the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling in the NS Letter from America
  • The author and former cricketer Ed Smith describes the mysterious phenomenon of being “in the zone”
  • In Madness of Crowds Will Self expresses his horror at growing bald

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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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.