Why shouldn’t the Tories make the most of Angela Rayner’s personal housing crisis? When you’re short of electoral options, there’s nothing better than punching your opponent’s bruise. If the police investigation launched yesterday reveals anything, it will land Starmer with the exact sort of scandal he’s spent two years barracking the Tories for — and reopen ancient wounds within his own party.

Rayner maintains she has acted properly, making the right declarations to the right people at the right time. If that proves incorrect, she will have to be sacrificed to maintain Starmer’s claims to be the party of propriety. Even then, Labour will likely take some political flack and its Left will be enraged at her internal exile.

But even if she is vindicated, that will offer little respite. In politics, behaviour is often only incidental to the scale of the scandal. Boris Johnson showed us how, with a fair wind and an almost inhuman rejection of contrition, you can just plough on. William Wragg, despite resigning the Tory whip, has managed to spin being a fool and betraying his colleagues into a call for sympathy. Others have found being “technically innocent” insufficient to avoid public opprobrium: Sir Peter Viggers took the most public fall for the expenses scandal despite the fact the claim for his infamous duck house was never actually approved. Even if Rayner is exonerated, the stench of scandal could be just enough to stick around. Indeed, the issue contains all the ingredients for making political hay: the fairness of taxation, the private lives of politicians, and house prices.

It helps that this scandal is easy to understand. Where an MP has complex financial affairs, it can be impenetrable from the outside. Rayner’s predicament lacks that advantage. Her situation is simple: either she made wrong declarations about her primary residence or not. Even though the sums involved are small (experts have said the tax advantage might be £1,500 at most), the principle matters — and is easier for a voter to understand than, say, Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. In politics, it’s rarely about the money, but the message.

This is all the more important when it comes to housing. The price of property is in some ways our national obsession. Daytime TV encourages people to rubberneck on those who are downsizing, trading up, moving to the country, or the sun and everything in between. News reports anxiously note whether property prices are up or down, while policy debates increasingly focus on the unaffordability of housing. It’s an issue not just of political salience, but of cultural import too.

Thus for Rayner’s critics, there is an edge here. Owning multiple properties is a signifier. Regardless of how you came by them, or even their exact values, that you have to worry about such a thing as the location of your primary residence means something. While we talk about the divide between the have-homes and the have-nots, the multiple property owners feel a class apart from everyone else.

This is where Rayner hits a snag. For decades, rising house prices have been seen as a boon, an increase of wealth to which one is almost naturally entitled. The tax system, which sees your home as tax-exempt, encourages this. To own one home — of any value — is simply good fortune. It’s something you’ve worked for and which the state could never claim a share of. Even inheritance tax treats main homes differently, with generous exemptions that don’t apply to other assets. Yet a second feels speculative, luxurious, and worthy of taxation. It’s absurd, but owning a one-million-pound home feels less rich than having two at a fraction of the value.

This attitude is informed and determined by the housing crisis. A lack of supply has given Britain a uniquely miserly approach to housing. The country has one of the lowest amounts of second homeowners in the Western world. There is no culture of keeping the family home in the old village ticking over, as our Mediterranean cousins might, or the forest-bound holiday homes of Scandinavia. Instead, second-home owners are derided. Either they are exploitative landlords, or wealthy blow-ins taking over countryside villages and seaside towns.

For MPs, second homes are an even bigger vulnerability. Our political culture has never recovered from the expenses scandal. Nearly a decade and a half later, it still rankles with the electorate regardless of changes to the system. Across social media and vox pops, it is the go-to complaint against those we send to Westminster. Second homes are at the apex of that, widely regarded as a wheeze that enriches those who get elected.

The facts are different now. MPs are given a modest allowance, and can no longer pass mortgage interest onto the taxpayer, effectively gaining an appreciating asset for no real cost. For those elected after 2010, maintaining a home in London and the constituency is a burden rather than an opportunity for enrichment. Some have ended up living in canal boats due to the unaffordability of multi-home life. Little of that, however, has cut through.

Instead, the public memory is of those who enjoyed the pre-scandal high life. They were able to “flip” their homes, changing the designation between primary and secondary residences whenever it suited them. This often led to the taxpayers footing the more expensive mortgage before the designation switched back to Capital Gains Tax (CGT) purposes. Some made thousands and banked five-figure tax benefits. No current MP is so lucky, but the public memory lingers. For that, Rayner could hardly have chosen a worse position to be mired in.

“Rayner could hardly have chosen a worse position to be mired in.”

And yet, this applies to the Tories too, whose efforts to ensnare Rayner may still come to nothing. Many voters have already switched off. It’s hard to launch aggressive comms moves when your brand is already tarnished — just look at how the many attempts to push “Sir Beer Korma” floundered. If no smoking gun of deceit is found, Rayner will likely ride through the crisis and Sir Keir will avoid having to once again take on his Left flank.

That this is what the Right thinks will land a blow is, however, telling. Partygate was damning for Johnson in a way no other scandal was because it touched a national nerve. Almost everyone had endured lockdown to the best of their ability because they felt it was worth the sacrifice. Flaunting it was an affront to the national conscience. There’s every reason to believe a housing scandal might be the best mirror of this.

Of course, this latest scandal smacks of desperation on behalf of a Conservative Party doing anything to cling on. But sometimes, in politics as in life, the throes of desperation create collateral. The Tories are going down, and they might as well try and take Rayner with them.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/