Peacenik Ken’s no-control zone

Clarke remains remains delightfully unspun in the era of control freakery.

Do broadcasters expect the creaky coalition to collapse, scenting the people's toff, David Cameron, will seek the approval of his distant relative the Queen for an early general election? The Con-Dem pact is supposed to last until Thursday 7 May 2015. That's four and a bit years into the future. Yet I hear telly types have written to Ed Miliband asking the Labour leader to take part in TV election debates.

The approach strikes your correspondent as a tad premature, unless, of course, the BBC, ITV and Sky sniff a cooling in the once-intense love between Dave and Nick. It wouldn't be the first civil partnership to end in divorce over rowdy kids.

Wealthier Lib Dems billeted in the four-star Mercure complained the water ran tepid, not hot, during the yellow-bellies' spring retreat behind a wall of steel in Sheffield. Lukewarm showers may be considered too good for Clegg and co by the party's critics, including many in its coalition partner. Public spending cuts are poised to bite hard but there was no sign of austerity at the HQ hotel. Empty champagne bottles my snout stepped over in corridors suggested it was party time for the Lib Dumb high command.

To Teignmouth for Any Questions with, among others, Ken Clarke. The Injustice Secretary drove himself to Devon from London and remains delightfully unspun in the era of control freakery. I would wager that the flak Peacenik Ken put up over Wing Commander Cameron's Libyan no-fly zone wasn't in the cabinet brief. Clarke's pro-European and liberal with a small "l" views make him a constant target for the Mail, Torygraph, Sun and Express. The insouciance with which this Conservative member of the cabinet dismisses Tory rags as "the right-wing media" must horrify pimpled spin doctors. And it's worse than fulminating editors of the blue press think: Clarke reads the yellow Indie.

"Sir" George Osborne's trainee attack puppy, Matthew Hancock, is a persistent breed. The young MP issued two near-identical press releases within the space of five days accusing Ed "Bruiser" Balls of losing £9bn on Treasury gold sales 12 years ago. The only change was the metal's price of $1,437 in the first then $1,444 in the second. Neither missive, as far as I could see, received coverage. Hancock should adopt the motto: "If at first you don't succeed, try and fail again."

Accident-prone Ipsa commits so many errors, the expenses police were forced to warn MPs that they accept "no liability, including liability for negligence" for email blunders by the force's own staff. MPs accused of fiddling should adopt the same weasel tactics.

The Commons will no longer bloom as brightly in the spring. Expenditure on flowers is to be slashed by£29,000 to £87,000. That's good news for hay-fever sufferers, and still seems quite a lot. But will there be enough for Lord Janner's vivid lapel?

Cuts bite, too, in Commons canteens. Doughnuts have halved in size, despite the price remaining at 60p.

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 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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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.