The shaggy oats of wrath

One of the finest beards in Westminster failed to hide the blushes of Fabian Hamilton, who was required to exit a Commons committee deliberating the future of financial services after he was caught, spoon-handed, eating at the back. The chairman, Edward Leigh, a schoolmasterly Tory, is a stickler for rules and tore a strip off the Labour lad from Leeds when the hungry Hamilton admitted it was a bowl of porridge. The Tyke MP's offer to share the boiled oatmeal with colleagues was brusquely declined, the disciplinarian Leigh deeming porridge a "banned substance" and therefore informing Beardie that he was "obliged" to leave. Hamilton blamed a broken-down car for the late breakfast. Because he is diabetic, he needs to eat regularly. Next time, he should buy an orange. The citrus fruit is apparently one of the few unbanned snacks in committees.

Operation Humanise continues apace to remould geeky Ted Miliband into a passable imitation of a lovable leader. The latest guru asked for telly tips, I'm told, is Martin Frizell, one-time choreographer of the GMTV sofa and significant other of the presenter Fiona Phillips. My snout described Little Ted as a human work in progress. Another consultant in what is known as the "image" world suggested, a touch cruelly, that Labour had two choices with Ed Miliband: change his first name to David or his last to Balls.

The millionaire minister Philip "Hatchet" Hammond learned that politicians, like actors, should never work with children and animals. Wearing his hat of MP for Runnymede, the Defence Secretary did a meet and greet in the Commons with a group of local kids on a school trip but it turned tricky when a girl asked how much he earned. Hatchet, worth an estimated £9m after making a fortune in property and other businesses, appeared crestfallen, and replied: "Less than I used to." The frank answer would have been a £134,565 ministerial salary, plus sizeable incomes from a house let in Surrey and a trust owning a controlling interest in the construction and housebuilding firm Castlemead Ltd.

That booming caricature, Peter Tapsell, a father of the House who dates back to the Macmillan era but broadcasts as if he tutored RobertWalpole, yearns for immortality in the Gay Hussar. Dining at the lefty haunt in Soho, London, the grandees' grandee was overheard vouchsafing his willingness to be drawn by the cartoonist Martin Rowson to adorn the eatery's political wall of shame. A gracious offer from Sir Pete; indeed, a proposition so beyond caricature that it has yet to be taken up.

Labour's waspish tendency quipped that, on his official visit, David Cameron met, in Barack Obama, "America's answer to Chuka Umunna". The super-smooth Umunna is called “Mr President" by colleagues envious of his rise.

The things you hear: a boyhood acquaintance of Simon Hughes says that at the private Cathedral School, near Cardiff, the Lib Dem deputy leader's nickname was "Vomit", because he was always being sick.

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 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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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.