PMQs review: Cameron's Andrew Mitchell problem isn't over

The Chief Whip gave the saga new life by shouting that he "didn't" swear at the police.

It is a measure of how weak Andrew Mitchell's position is that David Cameron couldn't summon a word in defence of his Chief Whip at today's PMQs. Challenged by Ed Miliband to say whether Mitchell (who sat visibly trembling on the frontbench) used the words attributed to him by the police ("fucking plebs"), Cameron merely reiterated that the Chief Whip had apologised and that his apology had been accepted. He said nothing to suggest that Mitchell is secure in his post, simply stating that the government "will get on with the big issues". The Chief Whip didn't help matters by shouting "I didn't" when Miliband claimed that he swore at the police, inviting the press to again ask what he did say.

Miliband, who had earlier referenced Boris Johnson's call for those who swear at the police to be arrested, quipped: "It's a night in the cell for the yobs, it's a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip". He later added: "They say that I practice class war and they go round calling people 'plebs'." But the Labour leader slipped up when he claimed that "everyone else is losing their jobs, the Chief Whip is keeping his". Given today's positive employment figures (which Miliband noted earlier in the session), it wasn't the best attack line to use and Cameron was swift to capitalise. "He wrote those questions yesterday before unemployment fell," the PM observed. Miliband also again falsely implied that all millionaires will benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate (he should have said those who earn £1m a year), a line that gives the media a licence to probe his own personal worth.

The session ended rowdily with Cameron baldly refusing to answer Labour MP Chris Bryant's question on why he had not released all of the text messages between himself and Rebekah Brooks. Cameron insisted that this was because Bryant had refused to apologise for previously quoting unpublished material from the Leveson inquiry (some of which had contained untrue claims about him), but it made him look like a man with something to hide.

Update: Tory vice chairman Michael Fabricant, who resigned as a government whip in last month's reshuffle, has taken to Twitter to confirm that Mitchell did intervene during PMQs to claim that he "didn't" swear at the police.

As I wrote above, this will only increase the pressure on Mitchell to finally reveal what he did say.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting on Whitehall. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.