Why can't we just build some more houses? Image: Getty.
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The Tories want to give away houses to make sure we have enough houses

Black is white. War is peace. Madness is sanity.

Hey, guys, I've got this great new idea for sorting out Britain's defence problems. The British military is under-equipped, right? The biggest problem facing our boys is that they, basically, just don't have enough stuff.

So, here’s my plan for making sure the military does have enough equipment: we sell off all the equipment that it already has. But – and this is the clever part – we do it at a massive discount.

No, trust me, this is definitely going to work.

Because, with the money we get from those sales, we can then buy some new equipment, right? I mean, probably not as much as we had to start with, because we offered that discount to motivate sales. That is certainly a downside, I’ll admit.

But you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and as we all know, there's no money left. So, thanks to the mess that Labour left us in, the only way to guarantee we have a properly equipped military is to sell off all the equipment that the British military already has.

And that is my long-term economic plan for Britain's hardworking soldiers.

Okay, so, nobody seriously thinks that this is a sensible military procurement strategy. And yet, in a different sphere of public life, “giving stuff away to make sure you have enough stuff” is an entirely respectable position, despite the fact it implies a level of economic illiteracy that should get you banned from so much as entering a branch of Tesco.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times confirmed that the Tories were, as a key plank of their manifesto, consider a massive ramping up of the right-to-buy. That, you’ll recall, was an iconic Thatcher era policy under which council tenants were given an automatic right to purchase their homes at a massive discount, and which has had absolutely no downsides in the 30 years since.

The point of the policy was to turn Britain into a "property-owning democracy", and it was, at heart, a political move. It worked on the assumption that people who own homes are more likely to vote Conservative than people who live in council houses. So, if you’re a Tory, you want more of the former, and fewer of the latter.

That, someone clearly thinks, still applies. Somebody in the Tory hierarchy has looked at which voters the party needs to win over to stay in government, looked at the fact there's a housing crisis, and put two and two together to make the square root of minus one.

Now, the party's manifesto will reportedly include an extension of the right-to-buy to cover tenants living in housing association (HA) properties. The proceeds of these sales, unlike the proceeds of past right-to-buy transactions, would be ploughed back into extra housing. In other words, it amounts to making sure we have enough tanks by selling off all our tanks.

There are so many problems with this policy that you’d think at least one of them would have come up in the discussions at CCHQ. One is that it HAs aren't actually an arm of government, so the government is promising to sell things it doesn’t actually own. It can probably find a way of making them do so anyway, but the bills that’ll result from the resulting legal wrangling seem an odd sort of thing to prioritise right now.

Another problem is that the policy will haemorrhage money, since that discount basically amounts to the state giving individual tenants a bung. "Sources" claim it'll eat into the housing benefit bill; that sounds optimistic to me, but even if it does, it will have done so by handing out houses to a lucky few, and as a British taxpayer who isn't being offered a subsidised house I feel a bit miffed about that.

And that is the biggest problem here: never mind the fact it’ll generate less cash that it costs us, or the fact that if the Tories really wanted to get the state building houses again they’ve had five years in which to do that. Consider the political ramifications.

Reuters report over the weekend said that the policy was “aiming to sway voters who are struggling to buy a house”. Now I know quite a lot of voters who'd describe themselves that way, and at least some of them would probably be open to a touch of electorally bribery. Extending right-to-buy to them would be a massive vote winner.

So why is nobody doing so? Because those people, some 9m of them, live in the private rented sector, over which the government has even less control than it does over housing associations. Those people would love the right to buy a house – but nobody is coming forward to give them one.

Because the problem with Britain’s housing market is not that HA tenants can’t buy their own homes. It’s that we need to build more bloody houses.

Still, I'm sure private renters will be delighted to see a future Tory government handing out subsidised houses like sweets to those who were lucky enough to be living in them at the time. It’s quite clear to me now that the only way to make sure we have enough houses is to give away houses. Black is white. War is peace. Madness is sanity.

That makes sense, right? Right?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.