At the Conservative party leadership hustings on Monday evening Andrea Leadsom apparently referenced her work on developing a long-term and cross-party vision for the early years. Her commitment to early action builds on a lengthy involvement with Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership, a charity providing therapeutic support to help parents bond with their babies, and with PIPUK, the national body for Parent Infant Partnerships, which she founded.
The hustings were private but lobby correspondents were soon reporting that Leadsoms performance was "a car crash" and, specifically, that her remarks about the importance of the early years went down "like a cup of cold sick". "It was meant to be an application to be PM", one MP scoffed "not a childhood development officer". Several stories recounted how talk of "the prefrontal cortex of a baby's brain" "lost the room" and the Sun described "people talking to one another and playing on their ipads." All the quotes were attributed to anonymous male MPs.
What was it about the significance of the early years that the boys found so much more difficult to grasp than, say, the case for quantitative easing or the minutia of Article 50 or so much less relevant to the future of the country than whether Ms Leadsom did or did not receive a tweet from Boris Johnson last Thursday evening? It is unimaginable that reference to investment in, for instance, the Northern powerhouse would have been received with such derision. Even the metaphors were infantile - "cold sick", "car crash".
Ms Leadsom co-founded the All Party Parliamentary Group on the early years which I was invited to address in April. I pointed out in my presentation to the meeting that investment in early action yields rates of return which consistently outperform the ROIs on roads and railways. ( £2.83 per £ invested in programmes for Under 9s, between £1.80 and £2.50 for HS2). Quite apart from the strong social case for early action there is also, if only the lads had been prepared to listen, an overwhelming economic one. Foolishly they apparently didn't listen to their wannabe leader and they certainly didn't listen to me. My engaged and knowledgeable audience consisted of approximately 50 women and exactly 3 men. I was surprised and disappointed by the scale of this discrepancy but regular attenders assured me that it was "always like this".
I have no idea who should be the leader of the Tory party but I do know that any mature and rational reading of the evidence evinces the inevitable conclusion that the next Prime Minister needs to understand the importance of early action and invest intelligently in the long term social infrastructure of our country at least as much as they need to understand the importance of investing in roads, railways and northern cities. It says more about the audience at the hustings than it does about the speaker that a promise to focus on "bankers, Brussels and babies" should have been so scornfully dismissed.
Sometimes I am ashamed of my sex.