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28 June 2023

PMQs: Sunak’s housing policies are built on sand

By attacking the Conservatives on homeownership and house-building, Starmer is turning a traditional Tory strength into a weakness.

By Zoë Grünewald

Questions require answers. But this week in Prime Minister’s Questions, the PM had none.

Keir Starmer’s topic of choice today was housing. It was once the Tories’ favourite subject, but is one that now makes every backbencher cringe.

Starmer began by highlighting an inconsistency in government communications, pointing out that some local Tories had run a campaign attacking house-building targets while the housing minister publicly maintains that it’s party policy to build 300,000 new homes a year. “So, is he for building 300,000 new homes a year, or against it?” Starmer asked, with a hint of mischief.

Rishi Sunak had little in the way of a response. He pointed to the government’s “track record” (that this was raised as a boast during a housing crisis was ridiculed by the Labour benches) of 2.2 million additional homes since 2010, housing supply up 10 per cent in the last year figures were available, and a 20-year high for first time-buyers. Everything except the answer.

Starmer, leaning on his lawyerly credentials, didn’t cease this line of attack. He asked Sunak if he could point to any housing expert who thought the Conservatives were on track to meet their 300,000 new-home target. Again, Sunak couldn’t answer. The Prime Minister tried to mask his thin responses with an attack on Labour policy, accusing the shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy of being opposed to building on the green belt – something she has denied.

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Starmer’s decision to choose the housing crisis as a central election issue is clever. The public is increasingly frustrated by the human impact of the failure to build enough homes. Sunak has been exposed by the Nimby backbenchers who simply won’t countenance house-building in their constituencies, even as mortgage prices continue to rise alongside household bills, and young people are unable to save enough for a housing deposit that would allow them to escape the extortionate rental market.

Labour is turning housing into a campaigning issue, pledging to reintroduce the 300,000 housing target, outlining schemes to quicken the rate of house-building, and “tilting the power” to first-time buyers. Meanwhile, the government’s boasts barely cut it: Sunak pointed to the new mortgage charter, shared ownership schemes and a succession of stamp duty cuts.

The Prime Minister was deflated today. He seemed distracted, more nervous than usual, fumbling his red book of answers furiously as Starmer fired question after question. His benches, too, looked glum. On one or two occasions they managed unconvincing cheers, but otherwise remained silent. Perhaps they’ve seen the increasingly desperate state of opinion polls in the lead up to not one but three July by-elections.

Labour, on the other hand, feels more united. Starmer maintained his cool managerialism: sensible, dogged and seemingly as irritated by the shambolic government as ever. And he was strongly supported by backbenchers.

Starmer finished with a pointed jab at the Prime Minister’s weakness by raising the latter’s previous, jarring responses to the mortgage rates crisis, such as “everything is going to be OK” and “hold your nerve”. “Rather than lecturing the rest of the country on holding their nerve,” said the Labour leader, “why doesn’t he try and locate his?” Starmer exposed the uncomfortable truth that until the Prime Minister can stand up to his powerful backbenchers, there will be no solving the housing crisis.

[See also: The housing crash will be different this time]

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