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Commons Confidential: Boy George’s wizard costume

The Chancellor dabbled in astrology during his student days, it turns out.

The HS2 route is giving the potato millionaire Andrew Bridgen a severe case of indigestion. The Leicestershire right-winger, who made a fortune selling pre-washed spuds, is a vocal opponent of the £33bn rail link. Bridgen thinks it’s half-baked and has complained in the Commons that trains would whizz at 225 miles per hour just 100 feet from his home in Appleby Magna. The route also passes close to his business, AB Produce, in nearby Measham. I gather he is wondering if he should pull the plug on a proposed anaerobic generator to produce electricity from rotting veg. He could be a Conservative who’s had his chips.

I bumped into a woman who was a student at Oxford University with George Osborne and she reminded me that Boy George, when not Hooray Henrying in wing collar and Edwardian tailcoat as a member of the Buller, was an astrologer for a magazine called Rumpus that was intended to create what it said on the masthead. The mag featured both a topless model and a “page-seven fella”, as well as “Oik” Osborne (known as Oik, you may recall, because he attended St Paul’s rather than Eton) in a wizard’s costume, complete with pointy black hat. Does any reader of the NS have a copy that deserves a wider airing?

The BBC is either very forgiving or very forgetful in gifting the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell a £295,000 sinecure. The one-time Blairite MP went for Auntie’s jugular after the Hutton report into the death of David Kelly. In 2004, on the evening the report was published, Purnell was fulminating against the BBC on Matthew Bannister’s Radio 5 Live show when I noticed that the corporation’s now director of strategy was regurgitating a Labour Party crib note. Purnell had the grace to blush and shield it with his right hand when I mentioned this on air, but the BBC is feeding the hand that bit it.

Scaremongering about criminals from Romania and Bulgaria flooding into Britain is heard in Labour as well as Ukip circles. An ex-Labour minister recounted flying to Bulgaria to talk about combating organised crime with a defence minister and a police chief. In a moment of lucidity during the talks in Sofia, the former minister claimed, he realised that the people sitting in front of him were behind most of the crime. I wonder if Bulgarian politicians return from London after meeting, say, Theresa May and William Hague and tell journalists that they encountered a couple of dodgy characters. I like to think so.

The nag jokes keep on running. Little Labour’s Ian McCartney, who describes himself as “the Wee Man” on his calling card (“undersized, underestimated, hyperactive”), telephoned to say that he’s buying a racehorse. The MP for Makerfield until 2010 said he’ll call it Tesco Express.

Kevin Maguire is 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 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.