European ambassadors feared Iranian lock-in

WikiLeaks exposes officials’ worries of being trapped at Ahmadinejad’s inauguration.

It appears that tactically thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions is not the only concern on the mind of state representatives in managing relations with the Persian nation. A document from the WikiLeaks batch of US cables, dated July 2009, exposes the back-room politics of EU diplomats as they prepared to attend the inauguration of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although prepared to send ambassadors to the ceremony in the Iranian parliament, member states had reportedly agreed to a secret caveat that would see them walk out if the leader crossed the "Durban Red Lines". Any denial of the Holocaust or threats against the State of Israel would trigger leaders' exit from the ceremony.

Despite their best intentions, the leak exposes the concern of members regarding the plan's practicality. Never having entered the building in Tehran where the event was to take place, attendants feared that their lack of territorial knowledge might prevent them from staging a successful escape.

Though threatened by seating layouts, floor plans and aisle widths, diplomats' greatest fear is said to have been the danger that the Iranians would simply lock them in:

They are not sure how they will stage their walkout, logistically, should they need to do so. They are worried that the doors may be locked.

Officials presumably felt that Iran might take its cue from China, who used the "locked-door" tactic to great effect in 2005. After facing hostile questions at a Beijing news conference, President George W Bush attempted to make a hasty exit from the room, only to find his way blocked. His shock and embarrassment at being held awkwardly in the conference has been replayed millions of times online.

The threat of viral videos exposing a stalled diplomatic stampede at the doors of the Iranian parliament would be enough to scare even the most seasoned ambassador. International relations can be a dangerous battlefield, and it is the responsibility of any serious professional to plan not only his strategies, but also his exits.

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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.