I suppose it’s a bit odd to admit to a growing preoccupation with a Tory minister. But the unavoidable truth is this: I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with Grant Shapps MP.
Our current generation of front bench politicians are largely sensible, sober, and utterly downcast men and women. On a media day they drone out their pre-prepared sound-bites at some ungodly hour to Evan Davis, then they trudge around Millbank saying exactly the same things to Jane Hill, then Dermot Murnaghan; then they might have to pretend they find Andrew Neil’s jibes on the Daily Politics amusing and by 2pm they’re often trembling, broken husks, sloping back to their departments with the air of someone who’s been stuck in the job for forty years.
Shapps gives an altogether different impression. The man simply loves being a politician. His Twitter feed is a curiously engrossing stream of Tiggerish minutiae. Whether he’s making a five-minute appearance on Radio Luton or holding a surgery in Hatfield, you can always rest safe in the knowledge that Grant will keep you up-to-date.
I find myself getting increasingly excited as I wait for his next tweet. Exactly how frivolous will it be? And then it comes, and his 40,000 followers learn he’s “On way to Partnership Accreditation for Landlords launch at University of Hertfordshire,” and you think: brilliant. Who cares about that? Obviously I do, because I’m slightly obsessed, but what about everyone else? I suppose it’s like following Joey Barton or Jedward: never mind if you find his updates boring; he clearly doesn’t. You end up being buoyed along by the enthusiasm.
Frankly I’ll take that over whichever spambot is responsible for, say, Andrew George’s feed. Maybe you think Shapps is a fraud, and he doesn’t care half as much as he makes out. Well – you tell me that the man who stars – I mean, really stars – in this video doesn’t love his work.
But passion apart, what matters is how well the man’s doing his job. And here, the jury’s out. First, he’s done some excellent work on homelessness prior to coming into Government. Few would dispute he understands the problem and is committed to solving it. But on housing, while it’s early days, his record is already patchy.
Make no mistake: this is a huge issue. It’s one of the oddities of political discourse. Outrage over tuition fees, cuts, NHS and welfare reform is understandable, but in terms of our day-to-day existence, the steady refusal of successive Governments to intervene in the market and provide affordable housing is one of the greatest political betrayals of our time – but protests have been conspicuous by their absence. The cruel vicissitudes of the private rental market create misery for millions. Yet when in October last year the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation and the housing charity Shelter declared that overall house building is at its lowest level since 1924, it was met with barely a murmur of dissent.
Shapps seems to have an somewhat contradictory attitude to social housing. On the one hand, he clearly wants to remove the stigma from it and make it provide a first rung on the property ladder. His announcement of flexible tenancies seems a sensible step in the right direction, and he’s been praised by housing professionals for ending the complex subsidy system. The aforementioned CIH report also commended him for his work to improve mobility within the sector.
It was therefore a bit of a shock two months later when he was laying into social housing without a shred of evidence to back up his claims: “For years the system…has been associated with injustice – where rewards are reaped for those who know how to play the system best.” His remarks sparked outrage from a number of beleaguered providers, and getting Andrew Gilligan on board did little to dampen their rage.
Then there’s Shapps’s new version of right-to-buy. Inevitably, there will be a shortfall in terms of revenues received – one estimate claims each house will raise just £10,000, and the chief executive of Plymouth Community Homes has stated publicly that he will probably have to sell two, perhaps three, discounted homes to build one in the same area. There’s no new money to make it up – so the fears are other development will fall by the wayside as the Government seeks to provide “one for one”. Shapps claims that the affordable rent programme means it’s possible to build a public home by investing less money than previously. But hovering over all this is the question of who keeps the receipts – council or Government – if it’s the latter and a grant is provided, will it be given in addition to existing affordable housing programmes? How can he ensure the money is spent wisely?
Shapps’s serene public mask has only slipped once, on the Today programme. The accusation was that he’d tried to bury bad news by avoiding a discussion regarding the slowdown in the number of social houses being built in Britain – the day after the Government made a major house-building announcement. He didn’t take it well, and ended up sounding outraged at the accusation he’d choose to miss out on any media appearance, regardless of the timing. The very idea. Once the discussion finally did get under way he asked to be judged over a longer period of time. Fine. But for all the initiatives he’s introduced, it doesn’t look promising. He’s only managed to deliver 106,000 homes to September last year.
He has a hell of a job ahead of him. One thing in his favour is that he doesn’t seem to mind rocking the boat a bit. Last week he was on Channel Four News discussing the proposed council tax freeze. Krishnan Guru-Murthy made the point that several of the councils that were refusing to accept the Government money being offered to enable the tax freeze were Tory. Shapps narrowed his eyes and stared down the lens. There was a hint of Clint Eastwood on the dirt road, facing off against a particularly vicious band of outlaws. He growled: “Don’t confuse localism with meaning we don’t encourage people to do the right thing. We’re saying where councils refuse to pass on the cash they might have to face their electors.” Take that, Surrey Council! Your own Government minister just suggested your constituents vote Labour or Lib Dem if you don’t do as he says. You can’t even call that playing hardball – it’s just plain maverick.
It’s pathetic I know – but I find myself rooting for Grant Shapps. He’s the best kind of Tory: enthusiastic, self-made, and devoid of airs and graces. Quite apart from that, his cousin was in The Clash. If that isn’t a decent enough reason to follow someone on Twitter, I don’t know what is.
Alan White’s work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.