Paul Routledge

MPs keep looking for signs of tension in Tony Blair, and some are now convinced that he is feeling the strain. At a hitherto-undisclosed meeting in his room in the Commons, the great helmsman was not at his most self-assured. The gathering was called to canvass support among backbenchers for Frank Dobson's bid to become mayor of London.

Around 40 attended, across the spectrum from Clive Soley to Mike Gapes, Tony Banks and Piara Khabra. They all pledged backing for Tony's candidate. "He seemed terribly nervous," relates one loyalist who was present. "This wasn't the bullish Prime Minister we have come to expect." Some put his edginess down his being neck-deep in internal party politics, where he is least comfortable. "It was almost like Tony Blair taking off Rory Bremner, rather than the other way round," remarks my snout.

Why Blair should be so nervous is a mystery, because things are not going well for the non-Downing Street candidates for the London mayoralty. Jim Fitzpatrick MP (aka Fixpatrick), the ex-Trot leader of the London party, will be cheered to learn that unofficial returns from the heartlands show Ken Livingstone slipping against Frank Dobson.

And Glenda Jackson (who gets my vote) flopped at a dinner-do for the faithful in east London. One of those present said: "She came in with five votes and left with none. Too cold." The black icon MP Bernie Grant is on-side with the Dobbo project, discreetly telling people that Ken's anti-racist credentials are not all they're cracked up to be. Meanwhile, Southwark is asking for donations to a £3,000 fund for the mayoralty election. Where's the candidate, though?

Still, the campaign keeps the Archer stories coming thick and fast. A senior Labour MP tells me how his first love at Oxford was mistreated by the millionaire liar. The drop-dead gorgeous blonde, aged 22 and in her first job in the publishing trade, was sent round to Jeffrey's penthouse with the proof of his latest book. Scarcely looking up, he said: "Just go into the bedroom and take your clothes off." She sat rigid, book clutched to her chest, and protested: "I'm from your publisher!" Ever the gallant, Archer trilled: "Sorree! Wrong girl!"

More news from the entrepreneurial front. The US ambassador Phil Lader recently hosted a talk-in on the virtues of venture capitalism at the DTI headquarters in Victoria Street. Chancellor Ir'n Broon gave a welcoming address to the hundreds of businessmen, but his enthusiasm was easily outdone by the laddish Trade Secretary "Steve" Byers, whose salivating remarks sent Labour MPs scurrying for their sick bags. Even so, Byers shares are being marked up.

In his characteristically pugnacious autobiography, Paying the Price, Lord (Roy) Mason, scourge of the Labour left and the IRA in about equal measure, records how Michael Meacher once rushed excitedly into a Chinese hotel breakfast room. "I've discovered a new fruit!" he told fellow MPs on a parliamentary trip, placing three pomegranates on the table. Mason gently explained that for years they had been a treat for working-class children. Meacher was "quite disappointed". Still, at least he didn't ruin the trip. Joel Barnett (Labour) and Robert Sheldon (Tory) did that, by loftily dismissing the Great Wall as "a pile of stones". This so enraged Chou En-Lai that he cancelled an audience and the group of MPs flew home early in disgrace.

How credible was a pre-election attempt to portray the great helmsman as Sedgefield superstud? The People carried a halfway serious story about Blair being so well-hung that he was known as "Dobbin" to intimates. This is the kind of free publicity that no spin-doctor ever gainsays, so Alastair Campbell never denied it.

The writer is chief political commentator for the "Mirror" and a biographer of Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.