A memorable conversation

What really* happened when Crosby and Cameron talked.

The scene: 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister is seated at a desk. Enter a stout Australian man.

David Cameron: Ah, Lynton, come in.

Lynton Crosby: G’day Dave.

DC: I’d prefer ‘Prime Minister’.

LC: But this is the Aussie straight-talking that you pay me for Davey-boy.

DC: That’s when I’m wearing my Conservative leader’s hat. For the purposes of this conversation I’m wearing my Prime Minister’s hat.

LC: But you’re not wearing a hat, David. Jeez, it’s lucky you hired a top dog like me to tell you what's what.

DC: It’s an expression. Look, I need to talk to you about something.

LC: What is it?

DC: I can’t say.

LC: Why not?

DC: Because then we’d definitely have had a conversation about it.

LC: Is this the plain cig…

DC: (Tersely) I said I don’t want to have a conversation about it.

LC: So what’s this conversation we’re having now?

DC: That’s the problem. That’s what I want to have a conversation about.

LC: You want to have a conversation about having had a conversation about something without having the conversation or ever having had it.

DC: Yes.

LC: Have you tried forgetting the conversation?

DC: What do you mean?

LC: Well, if you need to have a conversation about something but you don’t want to have had that conversation the usual thing is to forget that you ever had the conversation. That way, when someone asks you if you had the conversation, you can say: “I don’t recall any conversation.”

DC: Of course! How could I have forgotten to say I don’t remember.

LC: That’s why you pay me the big bucks. Is that all? It’s just that I’ve got a meeting with another client …

DC: Well, there is one thing. About these clients of yours ...

LC: Is this another conversation we won’t remember.

DC: No, this is about a conversation you have to remember. It’s from back when I first hired you. You agreed to abide by certain principles of engagement  to avoid conflicts of interest.

LC: I don’t remember that conversation.

DC: We’re having it now.

LC: Right now?

DC: Yes, this is it. Read this memo that Jeremy from the civil service put together about how being a corporate lobbyist four days a week won’t be a problem when you’re advising me one day a week. I think you'll find it captures the essence of the conversation, so now we can all remember having had it.

LC: (Skims memo) Right, of course. It’s all coming back to me now, Prime Minister.

DC: That’s why I pay you the big bucks.

Curtain.

 

 

 

 

*not really.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.