Like most parents, Liz Truss appears to be making it up as she goes along

Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored?

 

This morning I woke up to two things: the claim that Tory minister Elizabeth Truss thinks today’s toddlers are “running around with no sense of purpose”, and my own three-year old, hellbent on making me read Baker’s Cat for the millionth time running and refusing to take a mumbled “can’t you look at the nice pictures?” for an answer.

Much as I would have liked to ponder the former, the latter meant I didn’t have time. I had a book to read, several times over, with actions and exaggerated sing-song voices, otherwise - “Mummy, you’ve not done it properly!” Toddlers don’t need teaching anything about purpose. On the contrary, they could show the rest of us a thing or two about identifying a goal and sticking to it, crushing the will of all who stand in their way.

To be fair, it now turns out that Truss didn’t actually say that it’s toddlers who are “running around with no sense of purpose”.  The Mail just made it sound like she did. In her interview with the newspaper Truss was actually describing her encounters with free-flow play in nurseries:

I have seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose.

So it’s not the children but the overall setting. Even so, I’m confused. Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored? But now it turns out that a lack of structure is the problem. And besides, if it’s nurseries in particular we’re talking about, should children be in them at all? It’s not long since Swedish childcare expert Jonas Himmelstrand was briefing MPs on the evils of “separating children from their mothers”, much to the approval of yet another Tory, David Davies. Only it turns out Himmelstrand’s not that much of an expert after all.

Ho hum. I guess if there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that Tories don’t agree on childcare. Or perhaps they do but they’re just making it up as they go along, with frequent about-turns, in much the same way as most parents make things up, although minus the usual guilt and self-doubt.

In a nice, Gove-esque touch, Truss refers to one specific detail within the vast cultural context of another country in order to back up her current argument. In this case the country is France. This is because, as we all know, French children don’t throw food. They don’t talk back, either. I mean, they might grow up to be more prone than most to take to the streets in mass industrial protests (look, I know these are crass national stereotypes, but hey, I didn’t start it). According to Truss, French nurseries are where it’s at:

What you notice in French nurseries is just how calm they are. All of their classes are structured and led by teachers. It’s a requirement. They learn to socialise with each other, pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners, which is not the case in too many nurseries in Britain.’

Oh, and another thing I’ve just remembered: the French mums of all these well-behaved children don’t get fat, which is an added bonus. So yeah, French nurseries! Vive la difference! Or rather not la difference, the opposite (is there a French translation for “out of context  detail that we should all copy”?).

I don’t doubt that French childrearing methods – looked at in their entirety – differ somewhat from English ones. I’m less sure how much it matters. In  the interests of fairness, I’ve even conducted my own experiment. When some French friends of mine decided to have a baby, I decided to have one, too (I was quite keen on the idea anyhow, but the main reason was so that I could write this one paragraph right now).

Three years on, both of our children are at nursery, or rather French Child is à l‘école, where he learns to sit still and recite, while English Child is at Monkey Puzzle, where he runs around with Early Learning Centre pans on his head. And when they meet up the two of them appear remarkably similar and get along just fine (apart from that one time English Child sent French Child to A&E with an “overenthusiastic” hug, but we don’t like to talk about that now). What’s more, I don’t think you gain much by tinkering with early years education to ensure youngsters are “disciplined” if there aren’t opportunities to offer them later. Might as well let them be creative. That way they can at least pretend to have jobs once they’re older and/or paint more imaginative placards once they take to the streets.

That said, I suppose in the meantime there is a degree to which we’re not harnessing the sheer bloody-mindedness of toddlers while we can. If we put our minds to it, we could probably out-do the French on that score. I think back to when my eldest was two and totally obsessed with taking everything out of the kitchen cupboards and loading it into the washing machine. If you asked him why he’d just look at you and say, like some wild-eyed prophet, “--’chine! ‘chine! ‘CHINE!” The almost mythical determination to complete such a futile, repetitive task carries within it a message for us all.

I’m just not sure I, nor any “expert” MP, is capable of knowing what to do with it yet.

A group of toddlers with a strong sense of purpose. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories