The PFI cannot survive if it is managed through a series of short-term political fixes. Ministers must decide what role they want the private sector to play in the delivery of public services and organise the system accordingly. If off-balance sheet PFI hospitals are good value, then they must slap down the unions. If creeping privatisation is bad for democracy, as Unison says (page 34), then the PFI should cease. The muddle is compounded by some Treasury mandarins, who argue that the PFI should be extended. Only by giving contractors responsibility for a school's exam performance, they argue, can they produce demonstrable benefits. In return, though, companies would have to be able to hire and fire the head. Would ministers really slug it out with the teaching unions over this? Or, as with Unison, will they concoct a feeble "Third Way" compromise?
Despite this week's developments, the PFI is still in trouble. Policy-makers are in a philosophical fog, engulfing not just private finance but the function of business in British society. So, while construction firms are right to applaud moves to improve the initiative, they would be mad to over-extend themselves in any accelerated programme. Today's motto is: play it safe with the PFI.