PMQs review: a narrow win for Miliband

Miliband embarrasses Cameron on growth but stumbles on Ed Balls and Andy Coulson.

To give David Cameron his due, he managed to say what George Osborne could not at today's PMQs. After his Chancellor's "leaves on the line" excuse for yesterday's disastrous growth figures, the Prime Minister admitted that the news was "disappointing" even when "you've excluded what the ONS say about the extreme weather".

Had Ed Miliband failed to get the better of the PM today, one could reasonably argue that he shouldn't be in the business of politics. And, with the exception of one notable misstep, he didn't fail.

Cameron repeated his mantra that "if you don't deal with your debts, you'll never have growth". To which the Labour leader, quick as a flash, shot back: "If you don't have growth, you'll never cut the deficit." Though few Conservatives will admit as much, the facts support Miliband. The deficit for 2009-2010 came in at £156.3bn (£21.7bn lower than the original Treasury forecast), a sign that Labour's policy of "going for growth" was beginning to fill the hole in the public finances.

The Prime Minister may have repeated his complaint that Miliband's lines were pre-scripted, but they were no less effective for it: "The difference was that when we left office, the economy was growing, now he's in office and it isn't", "He knows how to cut jobs but has no idea how to create them", and "It's hurting but it isn't working" (an inversion of John Major's memorable slogan "It hurt but it worked").

Cameron's insistence that we should be grateful that Britain is no longer linked with "countries like Greece and Ireland and Portugal" is less impressive when one recalls that the same man boasted that the recovery was gaining momentum under his government.

Miliband stumbled when he contrasted his wise decision to appoint Ed Balls as shadow chancellor with Cameron's foolish decision to cling to Andy Coulson. The PM was liberated to deliver his finest riposte since "son of Brown": if Miliband thinks Balls is such a good man, why didn't he appoint him in the first place?

Cameron just about shrugged off Miliband's claim that he is "arrogant" and "out of touch with people's lives", but it was the Labour benches who cheered when the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, resplendent in a double-breasted suit, invited the Prime Minister to endorse Margaret Thatcher's view that "there is no alternative". The PM squirmed in his seat but rose to provide Rees-Mogg with the answer he was looking for. Labour MPs were left to cheer the political equivalent of an own goal.

George Eaton is political editor of 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.