Paul Routledge

William Hague may laugh a lot, but he has scant sense of the absurd. He's banned the chicken-run, that hallowed Tory tradition permitting Tory MPs or ex-MPs to regard a safe seat as an inalienable human right. Previous beneficiaries include Michael Ancram, Sir Brian Mawhinney and Peter Lilley. But at the next election, only half a dozen MPs - mostly former ministers - are being given priority in "safe" Conservative constituencies.

They include the gruesome David Shaw, who will return at Kingston and Surbiton (temporarily on loan to the Lib Dems), and Greg Knight, the former whip, who has been given Yorkshire East. Alistair Burt, the diminutive former DSS minister, is also on the list.

But the best joke at Chairman Ancram's party at Bournemouth was that Charles Hendry, a former party vice-chairman who lost in 1997, will stage a comeback at Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith's Wealden constituency because his wife outspent his rivals. "She's very rich, y'know," confided a jealous Tory. "She bought him an Austin Martin for Christmas, and a safe seat for his birthday."

"Stay calm!" Alastair Campbell told a breathless lobby journalist after Labour's high-profile defeat on pensions at the party conference. "Calm is a good place to be." Er, has he ever been there? Ali as the author of the new Labour Little Book of Calm is mildly incongruous.

The PM's press spokesman should have a word with Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator and candidate to succeed Michael Heseltine at Henley. He harbours irrational fears that the Lib Dems will deprive him of his inheritance. A bit of calm would come in handy there.

A particularly vicious "news release" has been put out by gay Tory rivals of OutRage! It names, with pictures, eight allegedly homosexual Conservative MPs, four of them frontbenchers. Denouncing their voting records as "homophobic", it says: "This prejudice shames and dishonours the Conservative Party. Don't be fooled by the homophobia of these eight MPs. It is mostly a smokescreen to disguise their own homosexuality and curry favour with the party's still-powerful anti-gay majority." Unlike our very own Peter Tatchell, the gay Tory vanguardists hide their shame and dishonour behind the anonymity of a computer website.

And who is this, jogging on the seafront at Bournemouth, risking lift-off in the high wind? Why, none other than Andrew "Big Ears" Marr, political editor of the BBC. A gossipy guest at his recent 40th birthday party reveals that Lord Archer was first among the invited equals.

The rise and rise of Marr has prompted the departure of the BBC political correspondent John Kampfner in a fit of professional rage. Kampfner, once fancied (by himself) as the new Alastair Campbell, seethed at Marr's takeover of the Today programme, on which his (Marr's) ears cannot be seen.

St Mo is showing signs of stress. In Brighton, she berated a political correspondent at a restaurant, offering to answer two questions if he paid for her meal. When he demurred, she picked up a stone cat used as a doorstop and plonked it down on his table as "an award". In the Grand Hotel, Nick Robinson was interviewing her for the BBC. "What's it about?" she asked. "Gordon Brown's speech," replied the former leader of the Young Conservatives. "Oh, what did he say?" she inquired breezily.

Since she announced her decision to leave politics, Blair has been slow to decide who should replace her. Anxious backbenchers fear he will bring back Peter Mandelson. Meanwhile, the undisgraced Ulster Secretary has written to David Trimble, urging him not to believe a word of my Mandy biography. The hapless UU leader was caught on camera with it open on his knee.

MPs' secretaries hate the £300m Portcullis House. The windows won't open. There are not enough filing cabinets. It floods when it rains. The mice are everywhere. "And there is no bar," wailed a veteran Tory secretary.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie

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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.