In their biography of Liz Truss, Out of the Blue, Harry Cole and James Heale chronicle the failure of her government, and their take on its origins may surprise you.  It finds them in her approach to childcare.  They write that –

“In reality, Truss and Kwarteng blundered into the tax-cut debacle through a mix of arrogance and impatience.  They were eager to flaunt their radical convictions without doing the necessary groundwork first.”

“The obvious parallel is with her first ministerial post at Education: she charged into the childcare brief armed with a reformist zeal and no time for critics, yet with insufficient support she was ultimately defeated by those notionally on her side.”

Conservative MPs unhappy with Rishi Sunak’s abandoning a second wave of Trussite childcare plans may want to pause for a moment, look back at recent history – and ask themselves whether shaking up childcare is really as simple as it may sound.

To understand why, it’s worth looking back to that first Truss package.  The authors make it clear, during an earlier chapter which covers the story, that Truss was very hard done by.  Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats let her down.

Truss, then Childcare Minister, wanted to deregulate the supply side of childcare policy – in particular, to ease the ratio of childminders per child.

Clegg, then Deputy Prime Minister, signed off plans that would have seen one childminder looking after up to six children in England.  (They can do so at the moment, but there are age restrictions.)

But elements of the formal childcare lobby kicked off, warning that children’s safety would be put at risk.  Clegg did an about-turn, David Cameron let him have his way…and Truss was left high and dry.

Almost decade later, she hadn’t given up.  Her leadership election manifesto committed her to “bring current childcare childcare ratios for those looking after three and four year olds in line with Scotland” (where the ratio is eight to one).

She also pledged to “give parents greater flexibility to use Government money available on wraparound childcare and on a wider range of providers”.

And she also proposed increasing the amount of free childcare available to parents – some reports say to 20 hours a week and others to 50.

Whatever you think of her solutions (of which more in a moment) Truss was certainly alert to the problems.  These are familiar – and have set out again recently in reports by the Centre for Social Justice and Onward.

Public subsidy for childcare is lower than in compable European countries, and UK families still face some of the highest up-front costs in the OECD.  The workforce are less qualified than in those neighbouring countries.

“The Government operates at least eight schemes to subsidise the cost of childcare, including the 15 and 30 “free hours” entitlements, tax-free childcare, support through Universal Credit, and VAT subsidies,” Onward notes.

Parental leave covers the earliest months (or at least is meant to); then there is the support for three to four year olds, and there is also the broader matter of wrap-around care for older children of school age.

Plus child benefit – the foundation of the whole system of support for families with children.  The Coalition restricted the number of children for which it can be claimed and its availability to those earning over £50,000 a year.

If the system is daunting for think tank researchers, just think about what it’s like for ordinary parents.  It’s all too easy to vanish into the complexities of the system, at least if you’re a Minister or a wonk, whem casting about for solutions

Yet the underlying choices are simple (though not easy), and must be made between two competing visions not only of childcare provision but also of government’s role.

The first seeks to maximise the participation of parents in the labour market.  Its logical endpoint is universal day care for all but the youngest children.

The second would try instead to given parents the maximum amount of choice.  Such an approach is more consistent with a mixture of provision: grandparents, friends, playgroups, childminders and day nurseries.

The story of childcare policy from Gordon Brown through the Coalition to the present day has essentially been to will the ends of the first without providing the means.

So it is that there are fewer childminders, some of the highest costs in Europe, a less well qualified workforce than in comparable countries, …and nightmarishly complicated conditions for the free hours which, if course, are not really free at all.

One centre-right policy expert doubts, contrary to the view of some Tory MPs, whether the potential political win is “that huge…a lot of the childcare complaints are from professionals.  Usually in polling wrap around for children of school age matters more.”

The 2019 Tory manifesto certainly thought along these lines, restricting itself to “a new £1 billion fund to help create more high quality, affordable childcare, including before and after school and during the school holidays”.

A billion pounds is a lot of money – but less than a fuller shake-up of the system would cost.  Sunak and Jeremy Hunt will be thinking that under present conditions a major expansion of the free hours is unaffordable.

And is it really desirable?  The CSJ’s report suggests that parents are unsupportive of a big state childcare model predicated on parents being driven towards full-time work in the labour market.

The Truss supply side ideas are perfectly sensible, as were her proposals for family taxation.  But as my source says: “if I were trying to reform the subsidies, I’d start by making them more flexible rather than bunched at three and four”.

That sounds a lot like ideas that ConservativeHome has floated before – namely, either restoring child tax allowances (with social security taking the strain for those who don’t pay tax)…

…Or, more organically and praticably, rebadging child benefit as the child allowance and transferring other subsidies to it.  That way, parents could use the money for any form of childcare they liked – formal, informal or self-provided.

When Sunak and Truss squared off against each other last summer, I wrote that the winner would be the candidate “more ready to make Britain a more conservative country”.

The Prime Minister is wary, mindful of Truss’s experience in 2013, of rushing out to bat without first ensuring the pitch has been rolled.  And neither he nor Hunt has a reserve of taxpayers’ money to start splashing about.

But there is a powerful sense among many Conservatives that, for all the plus points of the last 12 years, successive Tory-led governments have failed to make Britain a more conservative country.

Childcare policy is a stand-out example.  Replacing Brown’s childcare cats cradle – the essence of which has survived to this day – with a more simple system based on parental choice would be right, comprehensible to voters…and conservative.

Sunak can be forgiven for believing that he has no mandate for such a transformation, that there are no Treasury reserves to grease the wheels of reform, and that the electoral timetable must narrow his priorities to the NHS, the economy and small boats.

Nonetheless, there will be a manifesto to write for 2024.  And politically problematic though childcare policy is, it is far less so than families policy, of which it is a sub-set.  Childcare offers an opportunity for Sunak, if he is willing to take it.

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