FFS! What are the Tories up to? Not my abbreviation, but the riposte from Tory MP Angela Richardson after Nadine Dorries criticised Rishi Sunak for modelling Prada shoes while rival Liz Truss scrapes by with £4.50 earrings.
You couldn’t make it up. Well, both leadership candidates seem to be doing just that when it comes to housing policy (and many others).
The Conservative member for Guildford tweeted “FFS Nadine! Muted” after the culture secretary derided ‘Dishy Rishi’ for sporting the £490 shoes and a £3,500 suit while out on the stump. Dorries contrasted this with Truss’s frugal taste for Claire’s Accessories.
I’ve only once been into a Prada shop – jet-lagged on a business trip to Singapore trying to garner brownie points with my wife. I only realised, mercifully, at the last moment that I’d worked out the exchange rate wrong. I beat a hasty retreat, calculating on the flight home that the rather fetching pink ostrich skin handbag would have cost more than – cumulatively – every suit I’d purchased in my life.
On housing, it looks even more like a case of making it up as they go along
So what? Rishi’s got the money. It’s very un-Conservative to condemn a man for spending it, no matter that his ties are a bit too thin and trousers too short for the sensibilities of the average Tory member, who will choose the winner of this cat fight. (Latest polling suggests ‘pussy bow’ blouses are more to their tastes.)
It’s also hard to characterise any of their ‘policies’ as particularly Conservative. Tax cuts, for instance, have been scattered like confetti by Truss, without any seeming costing, or avoided by Sunak, only to be conceded – with both candidates invoking the ghost of Margaret Thatcher as justification.
On housing, it looks even more like a case of making it up as they go along. Truss made the early running by saying she’d scrap her manifesto’s “Stalinist” target of building 300,000 homes a year. That will tick the boxes in the ‘blue wall’, where threatened planning reform was blamed for the by-election defeat at Chesham & Amersham in June 2021. And, in a peerless example of ‘cake-ism’, she plans to ease planning to boost housebuilding and other development in new ‘investment zones’… most likely in the ‘red wall’. “Lower taxes, reduced planning restrictions and red tape would open the floodgates to new waves of investment.” She evoked memories of Victorian model villages such as Saltaire in Yorkshire and Bournville in Birmingham.
A couple of days or so later, Sunak (who sparked a mini-housing boom with his stamp duty holiday early in the pandemic) retorted by accusing Truss of aiming to build a million homes in the countryside when she was chief secretary to the Treasury in 2019. Back then, she told the Mail on Sunday: “We need to build a million homes on the London green belt near railway stations, and around other growing cities.” Ouch!
Sunak’s alternative view, set out in The Telegraph, would focus development on “brownfield, brownfield, brownfield”… but in the north and Midlands, rather than in the south. Not unlike Truss’s transformative vision on the road to Damascus or, rather, Dudley.
All this tosh may be weighing on sentiment among potential homebuyers. Despite house price indices hitting new records month after month, transaction volumes have been easing off since early in 2022. This clearly has coincided with the Bank of England’s interest rate hikes – but rates still remain low historically and much of the working population is better off than pre-pandemic.
The housing market is hugely dependent on consumer sentiment and, critically, the perceived direction of travel rather than the current reality. Reading constant reports on the cost-of-living crisis, witnessing the unedifying defenestration of the prime minister and seeing his potential successors at each others’ throats is unlikely to spur a rush to buy.
Even more so, watching the last two contestants perform pirouettes in the political equivalent of Dancing on Ice will leave would-be buyers in the dark, particularly as to how much or little tax they will be paying, or how high interest rates will go. Many will concede, in the possible words of Angela Richardson MP: “WTF? I’ll just wait until the autumn…”
Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and consultant