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3 March 2020

Why Robert Jenrick is the worst cabinet minister you haven’t heard of

The idea that the government should be taking active steps towards making housing cheaper seems not to have occurred to the Housing Secretary. 

By Jonn Elledge

The first two months of 2020 have brought forth all sorts of news with a vaguely apocalyptic tinge (fire, and war, and plague, oh my). But perhaps the thing that, from a purely personal perspective, felt most likely to herald the end of the world came when I found myself passionately taking Esther McVey’s side about something.

Before I get into the weeds of this particular row, it’s worth noting – this is the source of that rage – that McVey, the recently-sacked housing minister, has already comprehensively lost this battle. What’s more, her loss characterises, well, not everything that’s wrong with this particular government, because there’s rather a lot to choose from, but certainly a big failing, and one, moreover, that’s been consistent since 2010.

The faces may have changed; Boris Johnson may have just won an election using the baffling pretence that his government had nothing to do with the one that had been mucking up the country for nine and a half years. But throughout those years, whoever has been in Downing Street, the government has consistently been screwing up in one particular way – and the fate of McVey shows that it has no plans to stop now.

Anyway, that row. In January, the papers began reporting that McVey, who by that point had been the second-ranked minister in the housing ministry for all of five months, was clashing with the secretary of state, Robert Jenrick, over how to tackle the housing crisis. McVey, the MP for Tatton, who has always made much of being a working-class Tory, wanted to put more money into social housing, on the grounds it would appeal to new Tory voters from backgrounds like her own. Jenrick, who knows a lot about houses because, by his early 30s, he already owned three of them, thought it more important that the party focus all its attention and scarce housing budget on boosting owner occupation, ostensibly on the grounds that this had worked (citation needed) in the 1980s.

Obviously the papers lapped this up. A dramatisation of the tension between the different wings of the Tory coalition! A secretary of state battling a junior minister who used to be his boss! An excuse to print the words “class war”! The result was a lot of newsprint containing the word “loggerheads” and no actual policy achievements to speak of until, on 13 February, McVey was unceremoniously reshuffled out. If this was a class war, the government has made it abundantly clear it’s on the side of the people with big houses, although to be fair we already knew that.

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There are two reasons all this made me so angry. The first is because of what it reveals about how Jenrick views the job of housing secretary. If he thought it was to ensure that the people of this country were adequately and securely housed, then he’d be forced to reckon with the fact that, after 40 years in which governments have waited patiently for the market to provide, it was clearly not going to do it. He’d need to recognise that this country only ever built enough homes in the right places when the state was a major contributor to housing supply. He’d note that preventing councils from building had not led, ultimately, to a wealthy paradise in which everyone owned their own home, but that a growing and ageing share of the population was stuck in the over-priced, under-regulated and insecure private rental sector. And he’d be forced to conclude that, just maybe, it was time to try something different.

But Jenrick hasn’t done any of that, which rather suggests that either he doesn’t understand his brief or – more likely given that, before the general election, he couldn’t even be bothered to show up to the housing sector’s hustings – he just doesn’t care. Instead, his focus on ownership suggests he sees the job as to deliver a few more votes to the Tory party by redirecting yet more money from genuinely affordable housing towards yet more ownership subsidies, even though history suggests this will just inflate the market further and harm ownership rates even more in the long run. The latest wheeze, if you’re just joining us, is the “First Homes scheme”, which will offer 30 per cent discounts on new-build homes, and which Shelter has already found will be precisely useless to most people in most of England. Top jokes.

The idea that the government should be taking active steps towards making housing cheaper seems not to have occurred to Jenrick. And why should it? He owned three houses (yes, yes, “class war”, I know, I know). He’s only been an MP for six years: his prospects within the Conservative Party are not likely to be improved by garnering a reputation for being the guy who crashed the housing market and brought back council housing. Much better to keep stoking the fire.

And this is the other reason all this made me so angry: by keeping Jenrick and sacking McVey, the government has made very clear it thinks Jenrick is right. For all the talk of this being a new government, it intends to continue following the policy pursued ever since George Osborne was chancellor, to keep finding novel ways to keep house prices up, even though that screws a large and growing chunk of the country, and to hope that the bubble doesn’t burst on its own watch.

And so, we have yet another housing secretary with no interest in providing adequate housing, and I found myself upset that Esther McVey was no longer in government. Truly, the end of the world must be nigh.