Tory momentum stalls in the marginals that matter

Cameron's lead down to 2 points, personal ratings tank.

Eighteen months ago, someone at Channel 4 News made a smart call. It was autumn 2008 and the programme's makers were keen to discover whether Gordon Brown's role in "saving" the banks would ultimately save his premiership. But rather than test the mood of the country as a whole, the show set about polling in marginal constituencies.

And not just any marginals. The seats where David Cameron's Conservatives only needed to overturn a lead of a few hundred were irrelevant -- Cameron had those in the bag long ago. Rather, YouGov was asked to look at seats where Labour had majorities of roughly 2,000 to 7,000 votes, the very seats the Tories have to win if they want an overall majority.

In other words, these are the marginals that matter.

This week, YouGov returned to those 60 Labour-Conservative constituencies and last night Channel 4 News broke the bad news to Cameron and co -- the Tory lead over Labour is just 2 points, translating to a Conservative government 11 short of a majority. This is hung parliament territory.

The figures themselves are not disastrous for the Conservatives but the trend is worrying, suggesting a loss of that electoral magic formula: momentum.

Back in October 2008, despite the bailout bounce Brown was enjoying elsewhere, the Tories had a commanding 13 per cent lead in these 60 seats. Moreover, Cameron's personal ratings comfortably trumped Brown's. Not any more. For example, 70 per cent now think that David Cameron in No 10 would mean either change for the worse or no change.

The Michael Ashcroft millions, targeted at just this kind of seat, may yet start to work, but as YouGov's president, Peter Kellner, notes:

If Mr Cameron can't turn that round, and if the general election results are exactly in line with our poll, then the Tory leader would unquestionably become prime minister, but he may need to call an early second election to seek a clearer mandate from Britain's voters.

And if he continues to lose momentum in these seats, things could be even worse. As it says on this week's New Statesman cover: "Game on".

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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.