Nigel Farage during the Rochester by-election, which Tory defector Mark Reckless won for Ukip. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Farage struggling and Clegg in danger of losing seat, Ashcroft poll shows

Ukip are five points behind the Tories in Thanet South with the Lib Dems just three points ahead of Labour in Sheffield Hallam. 

Of all the constituency polls Lord Ashcroft has published in recent months (May2015 has collected them all here), today's is the most fascinating. In addition to polling 11 Lib Dem-Tory marginals, Ashcroft looked at the state of play in three noteworthy seats: Ed Miliband's Doncaster North, Nick Clegg's Sheffield Hallam and Nigel Farage's target of Thanet South. 

He found Miliband 12 points ahead in his seat (compared to 26 in 2010) with Ukip in second on 28 per cent and the Tories in third on 23 per cent. As Farage's party have been quick to point out, this means that they could defeat the Labour leader if Conservative supporters vote tactically for them. Cameron is fond of warning "Vote Farage, get Miliband" but in Doncaster at least, Ukip can warn "Vote Tory, get Miliband". 

But while the Labour leader has little reason to fear losing his seat (12 points is a comfortable lead), the same cannot be said of Clegg. Ashcroft's poll found him just three points ahead of Labour in Sheffield, a margin too close for comfort. Clegg's seat, in which he had a lead of 19,096 over Miliband's party in 2010, is not one of the 106 seats targeted by the opposition at the election, but with the race this tight, plenty of MPs will be offering their help. Tom Watson tweeted: "Clearing my diary and heading to Sheffield". Defeating Clegg in Sheffield would, after all, be the easiest way for Labour to avoid having to mark with him in the likely event of another hung parliament. This said, given that he's ahead even before any swing-back effect, Clegg will almost certainly retain his seat. 

Unusually, Ashcroft also has some grim news for Ukip. The party is five points behind the Tories in Thanet South (34-29), where Farage is standing, with Labour just three behind. The Ukip leader is likely to devote more attention to the seat next year (which he has been charged with neglecting) but that he's behind at this stage, before any late swing-back, suggests he may fail to join Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless on the Commons' benches. 

More broadly, the poll shows the Lib Dem vote holding up well against the Tories, with the Conservatives on course to win just two of the 11 seats surveyed. As Harry recently noted on May 2015, and as I've written before, this suggests that existing Lib Dem MPs are benefiting from an incumbency effect and that Labour are likely to gain most from the collapse of the party's national vote. Given that the Tories need to make significant gains from the Lib Dems (they are in second place in 37 of the party's 56 seats) to compensate for their likely losses to Labour, it is Ed Miliband who has most reason to smile today. 

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.