Labour plans to force Commons vote on childcare ratios

The party seeks to set the coalition parties against each other after Clegg warns that relaxing ratios could damage the quality of childcare.

Labour has moved quickly to exploit the coalition split over childcare ratios by announcing plans to trigger a Commons vote on the issue. The party plans to table an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, which will move to Report Stage later this month. 

Earlier today, in response to an urgent question from Labour, childcare minister Liz Truss said that the government was considering responses to its consultation exercise and would "make further announcements in due course" after Nick Clegg warned that relaxing child-to-staff ratios could damage the quality of childcare and fail to achieve savings. On his phone-in show on LBC this morning, Clegg said: "It is not a great ideological thing, it is about getting it right for parents up and down the country. When the last government changed the so-called ratios for three-and four-year-olds, it had almost no effect in reducing the costs for parents whatsoever, so you do need to be led by the evidence and that is what I will continue to be in the debate."

Truss had proposed increasing the number of under-ones each adult can look after from three to four and the number of two-year-olds from four to six. This morning, Clegg sardonically remarked to LBC host Nick Ferrari,  "I would challenge you to spend a morning look after six two-year-olds". 

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are creating chaos and confusion on childcare.

Nobody supports the plans to weaken childcare standards. Expert academics have told the Government that these changes would risk child safety and will not reduce costs to parents.

And it’s not just the experts of course. As any parent will tell you, young children are demanding and they need lots of attention, so while a childminder can have the very best qualifications, they still only have one pair of hands.

Labour have been campaigning on this issue for months, warning that the changes would risk the quality of care and even child safety.

David Cameron is presiding over a crisis in childcare. Tax credits have been cut by £1560 and there are 401 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010. The Government is doing nothing to help helping hard working families with the cost of childcare.

The question now is how the Lib Dems will respond if and when a Commons vote is triggered. The last time Labour tried to use this tactic to divide the coalition, in the case of a mansion tax, Cameron and Clegg responded by tabling their own amendment acknowledging the differences between their parties on the issue, while noting their shared support for the increase in the personal allowance. But judging by Clegg's remarks this morning, they may find it harder to find common ground on childcare. 

Childcare minister Liz Truss said the government would "make further announcements in due course" on childcare ratios.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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