Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Nurseryshambles debate is a lot more than a stroll in the park for Liz Truss


In a long, and, by current standards, less than politically correct description, Raymond Chandler has his private detective hero Philip Marlowe describe different types of blondes, including the “perky blonde who is a little pale and wants to pay her own way…and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder…”

It’s too early to claim that Liz Truss is that kind of blonde. But she seems pretty cool in the eye of a perfect political storm, which is where she found herself today. Like its metereological equivalent, this one seemed to come from nowhere. But the conditions – a Coalition Government beginning to creak at the seams, a seemingly low key issue affecting millions of people and a young, upwardly mobile minister attached to a policy of her own devising – were all in place when Nick Clegg announced he was blocking it. Nurseryshambles!

Ms Truss had been summoned by the Speaker to answer an urgent Labour question on her plan to increase the number of children qualified staff are allowed to look after.

Unable to resist a clunky analogy from the world of childcare, the Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop told the minister: “Whoever was babysitting the Deputy Prime Minister this morning did not do a very good job, as on LBC [radio]… he apparently insisted that the Government’s child care policy will be reversed.”

Yet in these adverse circumstances she was steady under fire. In particular, she argued that the ratios were higher, childcare cheaper, and staff better paid in France, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and Germany. Something of a Francophile in these matters, she demanded to know “if any Labour Members have been to see French provision for the under-twos and seen how good it is. I bet they have not”.

Luckily, the irony of a party falling apart on the issue of Europe using it as a social model was not lost on the Tory backbencher Peter Bone, whose distaste for the EU is matched only by that for Clegg’s party. Today the latter prevailed. Possibly for the first and last time in his career, he declared: “It is always good when we look at the European Union and copy what is good in it...” before adding: “I suggest that we press on with the policy and ignore the Liberal Democrats.”

Ms Truss, however, is up against not only Clegg but Mumsnet, the formidable multi-tentacle parental web forum. That certainly does damage to her prospects of winning this battle – but probably not to her career.

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