PMQs: Vince tackles Harriet on housing

by Stephen Tall on July 9, 2008

It was all-change at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, as Gordon Brown was detained at the G8 summit – which meant a turn in the spotlight for the party leaders’ deputies, Harriet Harman, William Hague and Vince Cable.

Vince led on the crisis in the housing industry, demanding to know of Ms Harman if Labour will “build up their sensible but pathetically small programme for acquiring property and give genuine freedom to councils and housing associations to acquire property in order to let it out to the 1.7 million people in housing need on waiting lists?” As is traditional, his question went unanswered.

Particularly delicious was Vince’s suggestion that Mr Brown stop “lecturing us on what we should eat for dinner, and competing with the leader of the Conservative party to be the country’s weight watcher-in-chief”.

With mounting speculation that Ms Harman might just be prepared to step into the breach should Mr Brown be evicted from No. 10 by the comrades in grey suits, it was a big day for her: she will not be best pleased by the reviews. When last Ms Harman stood in for the PM, she attracted glowing praise for besting Mr Hague at the despatch box. But she didn’t hit her stride this time, with her attempts at jokes appearing overly pre-rehearsed.

Whether this would matter a jot in the event of a vacancy is moot – after all, according to PoliticsHome.com’s PH5,000 tracker of popular opinion, two-thirds of the public rarely if ever catch PMQs, even as a snippet on TV or radio news bulletins. However, as Ming Campbell discovered to his eventual cost, it’s certainly noticed by political commentators, and even one poor showing can prove detrimental to how a politician is depicted in the media.

Anyway you can judge for yourselves below, via YouTube and Hansard:

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Does the Minister acknowledge the severity of the crisis in the housing industry, where leading private house builders are going bust, sacking 40 per cent. of their workers and dragging down the banks because they have an excess of unsold private houses? Will the Government therefore build up their sensible but pathetically small programme for acquiring property and give genuine freedom to councils and housing associations to acquire property in order to let it out to the 1.7 million people in housing need on waiting lists?

Ms Harman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the situation in the housing market is a grave cause for concern. That is why the Government have taken action and will take more. That is why we have ensured that the Bank of England has £50 billion to help with the liquidity situation; why we are building more social homes; why we are giving £200 million to the Housing Corporation so that it can buy houses that have been built but have not been able to be sold; and why we are helping first-time buyers by reducing stamp duty. I think that he would agree that the most important thing for housing for the future is to ensure that people can stay in their jobs, that employment remains high, and that inflation and interest rates remain low, and that is what we will attempt to do.

Dr. Cable: I acknowledge that the Housing Corporation proposal is a good one, but it is a drop in the ocean. Can the Government not get their priorities right? Instead of the Prime Minister lecturing us on what we should eat for dinner, and competing with the leader of the Conservative party to be the country’s weight watcher-in-chief, should he not acknowledge that we have a deep crisis in the British housing market—probably the worst in our lifetime—which is leading into a serious recession? It is time that the Government accepted responsibility for dealing with it.

Ms Harman: I agree that the situation is serious, but I do not agree that it is like it was in the 1990s. The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that it is important that we keep employment rates high and that we keep interest rates low. Those who are working hard in the construction industry, and in small and big businesses across the country, do not want the official Opposition, or any Opposition Members, to be talking the economy down at this point. Confidence is important.