Jim O’Neill looks at the shenanigans on the Tory right, the Prime Minister’s lack of judgement, and the reality of our chances of avoiding a hard Brexit.


Theresa May’s weakness and cowardice in dealing with her arch-right Brexit wing has been brought into even sharper focus by recent actions by two of the most unreconstructed Brexiteers.

Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, showed his commitment to privatisation of government services while Secretary of State for Justice by outsourcing all “minor” probation to the private sector, leaving the state Probation Officers to deal with only the most serious offenders. At that time, the Probation Officers’ Union warned that fragmentation of the service would lead to more offending, rather than less.

The Observer has now published details which show that offending has fallen in only 2 of the 21 areas. In all nineteen others offending by parolees has in fact increased. Bizarrely, as a result of the payment by result scheme dreamed up by Grayling, the nineteen failures will have their income cut by Government, ensuring that they have to make even more cuts to the service to ensure that their shareholders get paid their profits. Again, the community, not the shareholders, will lose out.

Luckily, probation is one of the areas covered by the devolution settlement and so Grayling’s introduction of the market into probation services does not affect Scotland. However, when she set up her own government, Mrs May, far from sacking Grayling, one of the leading Brexiteers, for his incompetence at Justice, actually promoted him into a post which does impact on Scotland.

When the last private providers of the East Coast Main line services, which provide the main east coast rail service between London and Scotland, collapsed, Cameron’s government allowed it to return to public control. For all the time that it remained that way it returned a profit to the public coffers, showing that Labour’s policy of returning the railways to public control is not only a good policy option but also viable.

However the Tory Party’s arch-privatisers, including Grayling, could not leave it be and they re-tendered the service. A consortium of Virgin Rail and Stagecoach won the bid, only to find that they could not make a profit. First Richard Branson announced that his company had lost over £100m and now Stagecoach have walked away having lost over £200m. Cue the return of the public sector? Not a bit of it. Grayling has decided to create a weird amalgamation between Network Rail and some as yet unannounced private sector companies to run the service, a system designed to create shambles in management. But the public won’t notice any difference in service? Yeah right.

At the same time Brexit goes from worse to worse in the Wonderland that is the Tory view of the negotiations. Theresa May’s attempt to ingratiate herself to the hard right of her party by announcing there would be no membership of the Customs Union ran up against chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s blunt statement of reality. The situation could not have been clearer in the televised portion of his talks with Brexit Secretary, David Davis, a man who is retreating further and further into his own version of reality. M. Barnier said in simple words that if Britain was not a member of the Customs Union, there would be customs barriers between Britain and Europe. Mr Davis, sitting no more than two feet from him, replied by saying that he hoped for a tariff free customs regime after Brexit. What bit of “there will be customs barriers” did Davis not understand?

Surely there is someone at the head of the Tory Party who can see the incompatibility between what the British Government think will be the outcome of any negotiations, and the reality of the statements coming from Brussels? If we are outside the Single Market, the largest free trade area in the world, and the Customs Union, our businesses will be taxed by the Community on any exports into Europe.

The only way that companies could avoid that is to move to Europe, and, given the high percentage of Scottish exporting businesses with overseas owners, this is a distinct possibility with dire consequences for the Scottish economy. However, I have no great hope in any reversal of the current Alice in Wonderland position by the Tories since they seem unable to build up the courage to challenge Theresa May, and even if they did, the fewer than 70,000 members of the Tory Party would be likely to elect a more rabid Brexiteer.

Our only hope is that such a move would detach the remainers still on the Tory Benches, as Anna Soubry MP has suggested, and the Government can be brought down.

The rest of us will just have to wait and see!