The Shard, Mordoresque. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Clegg learns the Shard way

Rees-Mogg's history, taxation mystery - and an early warning from South Thanet.

The donors’ and tax avoiders’ ball held by the Tories at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London may raise more cash, but no constituency blowout is likely to attract a bigger crush than the party thrown for Virendra Sharma. The fundraiser to re-elect the Indian-born former bus driver as Labour MP for Ealing Southall was attended by 1,200 people. The guest of honour was Tom Watson, who, back when class politics was fashionable (that’s 2007), sent limos and activists dressed as waiters with silver trays to hound David Cameron in the by-election won by Sharma. Watson’s a heavyweight in more ways than one in the eyes of local Sikhs. Last year, he exposed evidence suggesting that the Thatcher government’s hands weren’t entirely clean of the 1984 massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Tessa Jowell also spoke. I’m told that Sadiq Khan wasn’t formally invited but turned up. Surprisingly, David Lammy didn’t gatecrash the throng. Those present will have votes to pick Labour’s candidate for mayor of London.

No votes have been cast yet but an informant says the clerk’s office is preparing for a possible Ukip triumph in South Thanet. Should Nigel Farage be elected, he’ll be buddied up with a senior official to teach him the ropes. Word has now reached nervous Commons staff.

A Tory grandee grumbled after MPs were given 15-minute “Tesco time slots” in the robing room of the House of Lords to admire surviving copies of Magna Carta. The Commons Speaker, John Bercow, ribbed Jacob Rees-Mogg at the opening ceremony by suggesting that the young fogey was at Runnymede when King John and the barons agreed on peace. Rees-Mogg took it with good grace. This human relic from a bygone political era sounds as though he’d have been in long trousers 800 years ago, having fought William the Conqueror in 1066 and greeted Julius Caesar when he came ashore in 55 and 54BC.

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander were wrong to think they’d gone up in the world when they held a Lib Dem press conference on the 52nd floor of the Shard. The party’s failure to check if people could broadcast live from such a height proved problematic. The correspondents who’d trudged over from Westminster, including the BBC’s Norman Smith, were forced to descend to street level to deliver the Yellow Peril’s news. What goes up must come down, as Lib Dem polling since 2010 makes clear.

“She won’t shed any tears if he loses.” Of whom was a prominent figure in the Tory firmament speaking? Sam Cam. Millions of Britons would share her reaction, should Call Me Dave be granted more time to reminisce about his days in the Bullingdon Club.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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.