A few months before the general election which brought New Labour to power, Geoffrey Robinson had David Davis to dinner in his flat overlooking Hyde Park. The flat had been the scene of much recent political activity, used as a den by Gordon Brown who would invite his allies around and plot his personal strategy, pausing only to watch the football and eat pizzas. But that night the Labour guests had cleared off, and the then Tory Europe Minister was treated to the disorientating experience of being served supper by the butler of a Labour MP.
As the conversation turned to the inevitable Labour victory, Mr Robinson said how much he was looking forward to turning the government spending tap on again, putting an end to what he saw as the years of Tory parsimony. Mr Davis was bewildered. ‘You can’t do that,’ he replied. ‘You’ve promised to keep within our spending plans.’ The future Paymaster-General smiled broadly. ‘We’re going to do it as capital,’ he said. ‘And then put it on as PFI.’
Davis was understandably baffled. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was a controversial, but little-used mechanism established by Norman Lamont to privatise specific construction projects. But it meant something much more to New Labour. Officially, the scheme could be a beacon for the Third Way: a means of injecting the ethos of the private sector into the sluggish public sector, and an opportunity to get projects completed quickly and efficiently. Unofficially — and this is what Mr Brown grasped from the off, and what Mr Robinson was hinting at — PFI was an incredibly convenient way of concealing the true extent of public debt. Rather than pay upfront, the government promised to make fixed payments in each project over a period of about 30 years — keeping the whole thing off the books.