Week in Review: A complete and utter waste of seven weeks

The Labour-Tory Brexit talks finally fell apart on Friday morning. "I am writing to let you know that I believe the talks between us have now gone as far as they can," Jeremy Corbyn told the prime minister. "We have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us."

Theresa May announced the talks on April 2nd. In total, they have eaten up seven weeks. And what was done in those seven weeks? Absolutely nothing at all. It's been like watching a vacuum fall into a black hole.

At first there was no news. Then it emerged that she had offered a temporary customs union that lasted until the end of the period already agreed for transition. In other words, she had offered nothing.

Today we learned that they had planned to hold a series of votes on customs union options. These included a "customs arrangement" where the UK could "determine its own external trade policy", a customs union "covering both goods and services" until "alternate arrangements" could be found for the border, a "customs union covering goods" until the next election, and a "comprehensive customs union covering both goods and services".

This is the most unspeakable gibberish. What can one possibly make of it? It resembles the kind of thing someone might scrawl on an asylum wall with the blood from their fingertips, rather than the policy options of mainstream political parties. It's a kind of logical crime scene.

The best theory is that this mess is the result of two Brexit traditions colliding: ignorance and cynicism. Some people involved in the talks clearly have no idea what they are talking about. Others do and are using deceptive or mercurial political language to try to hide what these options entail.

What you end up with are sentences that simply have no meaning. What is the difference between a "customs arrangement" and a customs union? The description given for the former - "no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions" and "no checks on rules of origin" - is indistinguishable from the latter.

What does it mean for the UK to  "determine its own external trade policy", as many of the options demand? Under a customs union, we would be bound to sign trade deals with countries the EU has signed them with, but we could set our own tariffs for direct trade, as well as having control over things like services. That suggests we would determine our own policy.

But we would have to sign those deals, and goods could still enter the UK freely under zero tariffs via the EU from those third countries, massively undermining our negotiating posture. So perhaps we wouldn't. Just saying "determine its own external trade policy" means precisely nothing without a description of what that entails.

What, in the name of all that's holy, is a customs union for services? Customs unions are about goods. What are they actually talking about in this imaginary world they have created?

Could this be sector-specific pillars you can place on top of a customs union creating the regulatory infrastructure for some sort of single market relationship which they dare not say out loud? Maybe. You could imagine someone like Keir Starmer trying to frame it this way, to make it as innocuous as possible, and Corbyn agreeing to it, on the basis that he has no idea what anyone's talking about. Who knows. It could be mad babbling nonsense, or slippery Kremlinology-demanding concept synthesis, or both. Or neither. Maybe they just make this stuff up as they go along while howling at the moon.

That was all they had to show for the seven weeks. And then the talks collapsed, as we all knew they would, even in that silly period a couple of weeks back when people suggested otherwise. Seven weeks gone.

And the best part is, this is just an opening salvo of wastefulness. It's a mere amuse-bouche of inadequacy. Next comes the Tory leadership race, to show us what true time-wasting really is. This is how the big boys do it when there's no-one to get in the way. They will show you preening party political self-interest and national irresponsibility at a level you can barely conceive.

First we wait a month for May to try and fail to get her deal through, this time by legislation. Then, in all likelihood, she will have some other strategy to play for time. Eventually, probably, they'll unseat her. And then we'll have a contest.

How long will this take? Probably quite a long time, given there seem to be half a dozen new candidates every day. Yesterday, James Cleverly, who has managed to show loyalty to May over recent months while still exhibiting some degree of wit, threw his hat in the ring. So did Kit Malthouse, the dimwit whose dreamy imaginings of 'alternative arrangements' on the border served as a kind of tragicomic subplot to the votes on the deal. Even 1922 committee chair Graham Brady, who has all the charisma of a broom-cupboard in a small village hall, is toying with the idea.

They understand. There is no-one so drab and useless they are below consideration for the Tory party leadership. The benchmark of competence has burrowed into the earth and is slowly melting into its boiling core.

We have five candidates declared: Boris Johnson, Rory Stewart, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab. We've over a dozen others who have declared interest, including Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd and others. And we've countless others below that who are mulling it over. Just on numbers it is hard to believe this will be a short contest. The candidates with less name recognition will be pushing for it to be longer so that they have more time to establish themselves.

That seems to preclude any decision being made before the summer recess. So they would probably be made leader just before the party's conference in early October. And then at the end of the month Article 50 finishes and we'll need to ask for another extension.

That is the entire extension completely wasted. All of it gone. And for what? For nothing. For cross-party talks that were doomed from the beginning and in which people proposed ideas with no discernible meaning. For a leadership contest in which MPs will compete to look tough on Brexit while vandalising our own national position.

And then at the end, nothing will have changed. The parliamentary arithmetic will be the same. The deal on offer from the EU will be the same. The deadline will be the same. We'll be exactly where we were before. This will all have been for nothing. When scientific data shows an increase in alcohol and drug consumption during this period, we'll all know who to blame.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Probation privatisation debacle: Crazed obsession with the market fails again

It was a ruinous idea from the moment it was born, in Chris Grayling's head, back in 2013. And it remained one until the moment it died, last night, in the pages of the newspapers.

The privatisation of probation simply made no sense. No-one supported it. No-one wanted it. But the then-justice secretary went ahead and did it anyway. Now, after hundreds of millions of wasted taxpayer money and God-knows-how-many needlessly broken lives and additional victims of crime, it is being brought back into the public sector.

It is hard to fully describe the wastefulness of this debacle. Probation is the system that monitors offenders when they leave jail and tries to ensure that they do not reoffend. It is the harsh and unloved wing of public services. It isn't exciting, like the armed forces. It doesn't win public sympathy, like schools or hospitals. Most people don't even really know what it is. But when it goes wrong, we all suffer, because we all become less safe. There is a direct causal line between someone stealing your phone on the street and this service.

Grayling shattered the system then tried to rebuild it according to the profit motive. He split low, medium and high risk cases and put the former two in the private sector, with the latter retained in the public sector. Then 21 seperate companies were given the contracts.

But there was a problem. Probation does not correspond to the profit motive. Even if Grayling was less biblically foolish, this system could not work. The concept of privatising probation was wrong, as well as the mechanism used to do so.

Over a third of offenders have mental health problems, although some estimates put it as high as 90%. Suicide and self-harm rates are extremely high. Fifty per cent are functionally illiterate, meaning they have a reading age of 11 or lower. Many are completely illiterate. They are disproportionately likely to have experienced unemployment, drug use and trauma.

It's hard to turn that kind of situation around - to get offenders into work, to help them maintain relationships. And there is, in truth, no profit to be made in it. It costs lots of money and most of the time it doesn't work. Repeat offenders are hard to change.

There should be one question above all when people talk of privatising a service: What is the contract? On what precise basis does the company get paid? Where this is unclear, or if payment seems unlikely, then privatisation is the product of ideological zeal and not reason.

The end result is clear. The National Audit Office found that probation companies had much lower business volumes than the Ministry of Justice had modelled, underinvested in their clients and didn't meet performance targets. They failed to work with charities, or develop appropriate supply chains, or provide innovative changes to the service, or meet contractual commitments, or help offenders with accomodation, employment, finance, mental health or drug problems. In repeated checks, they were found to be inadequate, particularly in the area of public protection. After the reform, there was a 22% overall increase in the number of proven re-offences per re-offender.

The commercial approach was shown to be "inappropriate" for probation services. The fear of failure meant that risks were not encouraged, as they might be in a normal company. Contracts were "lightly specified", which meant the government could not hold providers to account. And payment-by-results proved impossible, because data on reoffending only comes out two years later and it is impossible to say if it is the result of the probation agency or some other variable, like welfare provision, or drug services, or something completely outside of government control.

But instead of asking about contracts, or exactly why we think the profit motive would function in an individual case, we just split into these incredibly tedious ideological tribes. On one side, the free market fundamentalists, like some crazed tribe of mouth-frothing Bacchic Hayekians, who think profit acts as some sort of magic wand fixing everything. And on the other the Corbyn disciples, whose only answer to any problem is to nationalise it, in as crude a way as possible, more to make themselves feel like they're getting revenge for 40 years of policy defeat than because they really believe it might help anyone.

It's all so boring and inadequate. We need rational case-by-case assessments of public benefit. What we get instead are massed ranks of zealots.

It's easy to turn this into a Grayling story. He is demonstrably inadequate and should have no role in any sane British government. The duration and extent of his political success is a vivid test of how badly our political system is malfunctioning.

But this is a much bigger story than just him. It's about how simple-minded our debate on privatisation and nationalisation is and what the consequences of that are for all of us. If you can only think in terms of 'good' and 'bad', with no nuance or judgement in between, don't be surprised when you get terrible results.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Fourth time lucky: May's pitiful gambit

On the face of it, Theresa May's latest move makes no sense. But that's until you remember that she is, on a basic strategic level, the most hapless prime minister of our lifetime.

She is going to drop her attempt to hold another straight yes-or-no vote on her deal and instead bring forward the legislation that would enact it. This will then function as the fourth attempt to get it through the Commons.

Perhaps she feels this will sharpen the minds of MPs. Or maybe it's the only way she can get past John Bercow's insistence that the same proposition can only be brought forward once. Either way, the numbers just aren't there.

She lost by 58 votes last time. That means she needs to turn about 30 MPs. But where will they come from? She doesn't have the support of the Labour front bench. The talks between them have gone nowhere, with little sign they ever will. She doesn't have the support of the DUP. They responded to the news by instantly confirming they would vote against it.

Even the 30 number is generous. There has actually been a slight drift back towards opposition to her deal among many on the Tory right.

That drift could get worse once the withdrawal bill is published. There is a reason no-one has seen this thing. Once the detailed provisions it includes are out, in stark black-and-white, they are going to drive many Brexiter MPs insane.

Many of them cannot even accept harmless aspects of a Brexit deal. This recent exchange between John Redwood and Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay does a good job of demonstrating the hardline Brexiter mindset. The veteran eurosceptic is outraged the deal has a two-way "sincere cooperation" requirement, for instance, even though this is normal in many international agreements. He soon starts babbling about the reintroduction of "the powers of the European court". If he can't handle that kind of innocuous provision, the legal details of what the backstop entails will drive him round the bend. It is likely to create a sense of thrubbing outrage among Brexiters that will see more of them retreat from their already hesitant support for May's deal.

May's only real chance is to hope that there are enough Labour MPs feeling the voter frustration over the failure to get Brexit 'done' that they are prepared to switch. She may well find some. She is unlikely to find enough. Maybe she is also hoping that a strong showing for the Brexit party in late May will spook enough MPs into backing her deal in early June. Again, there is a glimmer of a tactic there. But again, it does not show much sign of success. You'd have to talk to a lot of people in Westminster before you found one who expected her to win this vote.

The announcement also seems to seal her fate. She has promised to depart if she gets her deal through, so a victory, if she could somehow secure it, signals the end of her premiership. Most people believe that a fourth defeat would finally bring her down too. Win or lose, she will be under intense pressure to go.

So why is she doing it? For the same reason she does anything. Her prime ministerial career is littered with moments in which she creates severe future problems in order to overcome more trivial immediate ones. Her tactics are very predictable: survive the present, deal with the consequences later.

She has made countless promises - on a free trade deal, on transition, on talk sequencing, on the divorce bill, on free movement, on a border in the Irish Sea, on renegotiating the backstop, on alternative arrangements, on Article 50 extension, on the need to hold the European elections - while knowing that she could not abide by them. Anyone who has taken an interest in the detail of Brexit has watched her say things she could not possibly believe simple in order to survive the day.

Tory election leaflets currently being delivered to voters' homes say that "we could cancel the elections" if MPs supported May's deal. This is false. If the deal were passed today, the elections would still need to go ahead. The PM's deputy, David Lidington, literally confirmed the vote was going ahead on the day the leaflets first emerged. The time-delay of printing meant that her previous lie could be published at the precise moment it was revealed to have no substance.

This approach to politics is not just immoral - it is self-harming. The political damage you take is doubled by being delayed. You take the hit on the bad thing happening, then you take an additional hit on there being a record of you denying that it would happen. And then you take a more gradual further hit on being plainly untrustworthy. That last part is one of the reasons why the talks with Labour are so difficult. Whatever they agreed, there's no way of knowing if she'd stick to it.

May's whole strategic approach to politics assumes that people have no functioning memory. But they do, and it has ruined her.

In this case, May's calculation was quite simple. She was facing a challenge from Conservative backbenchers who wanted to change or suspend the Tory party rules so another vote of no-confidence could be held on her leadership. This buys her time until early June.

It has a secondary benefit of reducing the immediate threat after the European election results. The vote on her deal will come a couple of weeks after they are held. By then, the results will have faded in the memory slightly, just like the local elections have now. The danger period of intense indignation is neutralised by a sequencing proposal which places the moment of truth a little later down the line.

The advantage is minimal and the price terrible, but it's typical of May that she chooses to pay it, because it comes later. It really is as basic and elementary as that. She is like someone using a hallway for storage.

If she had any strategic sense, she would not do it. But then if she had that, we wouldn't be in this situation to begin with.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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