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News brief: U.K. politics, Steve Bannon sentencing, U.S. housing market

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you ever dreamed of being U.K. prime minister, now may be your chance.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

OK. The race may not be that wide open, but after Liz Truss lasted only six weeks, nobody knows who might take the job next. Half a dozen figures in the Conservative Party are seen as contenders. Most have some kind of baggage or downside, and they include Boris Johnson, the prime minister who resigned amid scandal before Truss did.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt has been watching events from London. And he joins us now. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So I'm thinking of that old lyric from the Who - meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Could that be literally true?

LANGFITT: It could be literally true. I mean, I'm still very skeptical and a lot of people are here, too. I want to say that none of these candidates have actually announced, but there's already building public support. And the reason that I think this is actually worth considering is, right now, Conservative Home - this is a good website that covers the Conservative Party. It has numbers now showing that Rishi Sunak - he's the former chancellor - he's at 35 support from lawmakers in the parliamentary party. Nineteen for Johnson, 11 for Penny Mordaunt, who's the former defense secretary. So over the weekend, we're going to see more and more people coming out to decide who they want - these are Conservative lawmakers in the parliament - and see by Monday who's getting the most support.

INSKEEP: OK. So you have to take Boris Johnson seriously given that the same members of parliament who pushed him out, at least some of them seem willing to push him back in or pull him back in. What is the argument against Boris Johnson?

LANGFITT: Well, I mean, how much time do you have? I mean, you've got to remember, this is a guy that just last summer we were talking about a lot. He was basically tossed out by his own lawmakers because he lied about these government parties during the COVID lockdown. And people are really angry about that here. They recognize that in the past, Boris Johnson had lied about a lot of things. But this really, really bothered them. And what we found, if you - I was just looking at some old polls from just even a few months ago, nationally, 75% find him untrustworthy. Two-thirds found him incompetent and wanted him to resign. So the idea, which you would hear from some Conservative lawmakers, that he could actually - because in the past he's won elections, could help the Tory Party, the Conservatives out of the mess that they're in right now, for a lot of people, that just seems extremely unlikely.

INSKEEP: Now, you did mention some other names earlier when you talked about that Conservative site...

LANGFITT: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...That was tracking members of parliament. Who are some of the other contenders?

LANGFITT: Yeah. So I think the person to watch right now is definitely Rishi Sunak. He's at the top. And he came in second over the summer, lost to Liz Truss. He is the former chancellor of the exchequer. And that's important because the major problem that this country right now faces is economic and fiscal. And he has that background. And his original budget was a much more fiscally conservative budget. Liz Truss went for unfunded tax cuts. And after the market tanked, she actually ended up having to adopt the policies of the man, Rishi Sunak, that she beat. The other person, Penny Mordaunt, is very popular also among the Tory faithful out in the countryside. And they're the ones who could ultimately have the decision here.

INSKEEP: So when you talk about ultimately having the decision - the Conservative Party in recent years has had this system where the members of parliament, who would normally choose the prime minister, don't make the final decision. They leave it to party hardliners out in the countryside. Are they really going to go through that again?

LANGFITT: They could. The only way that that would change is there's now about - you have to have a hundred people in the parliament to support you. And if only one person makes that, then that person would become head of the party and prime minister of the United Kingdom.

INSKEEP: So if someone is overwhelmingly supported among members of parliament, it goes no farther?

LANGFITT: And there's certainly a lot of hope that that will happen because the last two prime ministers didn't work out too well.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Donald Trump's former adviser, Steve Bannon, faces sentencing in a federal courtroom today.

FADEL: Yeah. He was convicted of two counts of criminal contempt of Congress. He defied a subpoena from the House panel investigating the January 6 attack.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering the sentencing. Hey there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was Bannon's crime?

JOHNSON: Remember, this all started when the House January 6 committee wanted documents and testimony from Steve Bannon about the attack. This panel wanted to know why Bannon said, all hell is going to break loose tomorrow, one day before the assault on the Capitol. Bannon promised to make life difficult for the attorney general and for Democrats. Here's what he told reporters when he was charged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BANNON: I'm telling you right now, this is going to be the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.

JOHNSON: But things didn't turn out that way. Bannon put on no defense during his trial in July. And the jury didn't take very long at all to convict him. Bannon is going to find out his punishment today.

INSKEEP: Of course, that's up to the judge. But prosecutors get a say. What are they saying about the defendant?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors say Steve Bannon pursued a, quote, "bad-faith strategy of defiance and contempt." They want him to serve the maximum under the guidelines, that would be six months in jail and a fine of $200,000. DOJ says Bannon played games and tried last-minute tricks to avoid punishment, totally disregarding the law. Prosecutors gave the judge a full page of examples of bombastic remarks Bannon made on his podcast, which traffics in conspiracy theories. Bannon also promised to go medieval on his political enemies. Justice wants this judge to send a message to others who fail to comply with Congress that there's going to be a price to pay for that.

INSKEEP: OK. So how medieval is he going as he prepares for his sentencing here?

JOHNSON: Well, Bannon is asking the judge for no jail time at all. But if there has to be any punishment, he wants it to be probation. He also wants this judge to hold off on sending him to jail right away. He wants to remain free pending an appeal. There are some signs that Judge Carl Nichols might buy Bannon's argument. The judge has expressed some concern about a 60-year-old legal precedent that says the Justice Department only needs to prove Bannon made a deliberate choice not to comply with Congress, not forcing DOJ to prove that Bannon had an improper motive. And the judge may think that the appeals court will want to hear that argument. And Bannon may have a good case to make there that he relied on advice from his lawyer, and therefore didn't intend to break the law in his mind.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the larger implications of this sentencing and what message it sends?

JOHNSON: Well, we have a case coming up in November involving former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro. He's scheduled to go on trial here in D.C. for other charges that he blew off the January 6 committee. And while prosecutors decided not to charge Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, there's an open question of whether Trump himself will flout a subpoena that's coming his way from that same January 6 committee. So there's going to be more action on these fronts in the next weeks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Always a pleasure hearing from you. Thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The housing market is in trouble.

FADEL: The number of sales in September is down 24% from a year ago to the lowest level in a decade. Prices are falling a bit, too.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold joins us now to talk about whether the market could get even worse. Hey there, Chris.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: I think it's obvious to most people, but talk us through what's happening to the market.

ARNOLD: Well, as you probably would have guessed, this has everything to do with interest rates. I mean, they've gone from 3% at the start of the year to now up above 7%. I mean, that is a huge jump for something as expensive as a house. It adds $1,000 a month, about, to the monthly payment for a typical house. And that's making people rethink if they can afford to buy a home. And a lot of families with kids are struggling with this right now. I talked to Heather Gant. She used to be a Navy diesel mechanic. Her husband's an officer in the Navy. And he's away on a ship now. And they've agreed to buy a new home that's almost built in Virginia.

HEATHER GANT: He said last night that he hasn't been sleeping. Thinking about it just keeps me up every night. And then he just said, we're so screwed. And so then I said, well, then let's just back out.

ARNOLD: Actually, despite all of the angst, they are going to buy the place. But a lot of buyers just really can't afford it. And this affects sellers, too. You know, if you've got a mortgage at 3% or less than your current house, you know, you don't really want to go buy another house and pay 7% on a mortgage. So that's keeping homes off the market. So both ways, this is slowing things down.

INSKEEP: Chris, even before this happened, the housing market seemed dysfunctional and choked. There weren't enough houses going on the market. Prices were going through the roof. So where does it head now?

ARNOLD: Well, that depends on what parts of that you look at. I mean, there are some ominous signs. Sales have fallen for eight straight months now. Eight months in a row, fewer homes sold than the month before that - does not happen very often. I talked to Lawrence Yun about this. He's the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

LAWRENCE YUN: The last time we saw this is back in 2007, essentially a few months right before the great housing market crash that occurred. Now, of course, there are some differences.

ARNOLD: There's some very big differences. I mean, back then, millions of people had these subprime mortgages that were just - had these crazy terms where the payments went so high, no one could afford them.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ARNOLD: That led to a wave of foreclosures. And so we had this glut of homes for sale, way too many homes. Today, it's the opposite. People have fixed-rate, safe mortgages that they can afford. And we have a housing shortage. Here's Lawrence Yun.

YUN: We had over 4 million homes available for sale back in the housing market crash of 2008-2009, 4 million. Today we are just at 1 million level, so still very tight inventory condition.

INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute. The dysfunctional issue that I mentioned before, the shortage of homes for sale, might actually save the market?

ARNOLD: Exactly. You know, nationally, most economists think, OK, prices might fall a bit - some say 10% from the tippy-top peak, maybe a little more - but not a crash. And it's actually amazing. I mean, homes are selling, on average, in just 19 days. That's really fast. So even with higher rates and fewer sales, there still just aren't enough homes. And they're selling quickly.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from realtors?

ARNOLD: Well, I checked back in with a realtor we've been talking to during the really frenzied market of the past couple of years. Her name is Gabriela Raimander. And she's in St. Petersburg, Fla.

GABRIELA RAIMANDER: Now we're seeing normalcy again. Yes, there are open houses. People are actually going. They're looking at it. The buyers have definitely more of a chance to get a property.

ARNOLD: And if you can afford these rates, you can even bid a little under the asking price now, Steve.

INSKEEP: Chris, thanks so much.

ARNOLD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: His reporting is always full price, NPR's Chris Arnold. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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