Blair’s back -- they must be desperate

Labour’s “secret weapon” is likely to backfire.

This general election has been notable for many things, but one of them has been the absence of the Cheshire-cat grin of our former prime minister, Tony Blair. We last saw him, and heard his now strangely mid-Atlantic tones, just before the campaign actually started in his former parliamentary seat.

Now comes news that he is to be unleashed as Labour's "secret weapon". He is expected to sprinkle his stardust on some marginals in the south-east before voters in the north-west enjoy the good fortune of having his presence bestowed upon them.

Labour must be desperate. And that's not just my opinion. In the Guardian (article linked above), Patrick Wintour wrote that Blair "has not been seen since he gave a speech in his old Sedgefield constituency almost a month ago".

Actually, that's not quite true. The Daily Mail's David Jones tracked him down to a convention centre just outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Blair headed the bill at the National Achievers' Congress. The paper says that for appearing at what it called a "glitzy, get-rich-quick rally" and its associated speaking tour, the man who is supposed to be bringing peace to the Middle East was being paid £350,000.

Pretending to be an ordinary delegate, Jones managed to speak to Blair. Here is his report of what Tony said about the UK election. "He might do 'something' before the campaign finished, he went on unenthusiastically, adding: 'But I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.' If he appeared on the stump people would accuse him of meddling, he explained, but if he didn't they'd say he didn't care."

Not exactly fighting talk from Labour's "secret weapon", is it?

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to 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.