And I'm not making this up...

Instead of pandering to tabloid mythology why can't May, Cameron and co just be honest?

Sometimes I like to think of a world in which everything that's said at the Conservative Party conference is true. Imagine that world, for a moment. It's a world where rich people are nice, and businesses are trying their hardest to make the world a better place but are constantly thwarted by pesky red tape.

It's a world where the poor are grasping and bad, and people who aren't doing very well have ended up there by not trying hard enough and not getting on their bikes.

It's also a world where political correctness has gone mad. But you can't even say mad nowadays, you have to say "mindfully challenged" because otherwise the Brussels bureaucrats, and I'm not making this up, won't be able to deport racists back to where they came from because of their so-called human rights, and I saw someone had to wear safety goggles to open a packet of Murray Mints, it was in the papers and everything.

No, I'm getting confused. That was just a silly caricature of things that might be said at the Conservative Party conference; it wasn't what was actually said. However, even though that isn't quite accurate, it's close enough, isn't it? I mean, who cares what actually happened, when you can just tell a story that's got some kind of basis in fact, even if it's not exactly what happened?

When challenged about it, you can get your mates in the press to tell their readers that you're right; and it's not as if anyone on your side cares or not whether you're telling them the truth, as long as it neatly chimes in with their prejudices and expectations.

Well, that's not entirely true either, though. Because not all Tories roared with approval when Theresa May told her since-discredited shaggy moggy tale about a cat that kept someone in the country who shouldn't have been in the country, and how that showed why the Human Rights Act should be consigned Mary Bale-style to the wheelie bin.

Kenneth Clarke, the only Tory it's all right to be fond of if you're a leftie (although if we were allowed dead ones, I'd put Kenny Everett in there) thought it cheapened the debate to mention something that wasn't fundamentally accurate.

Later that same conference, David Cameron came up with a tale about health and safety having literally gone mad when a school tried to order highlighter pens, concocting a daft image of kids having to put on chemical protection suits and stand behind a blast shield just to use them. Was that true? It might have been, I suppose, but it's this kind of anecdotal justification for important policy -- the scrapping of the human rights act here, the relaxation of health and safety regulation there -- that cheapens our political life.

This kind of pandering to tabloid mythology is reminiscent of the black man Cameron met before the election campaign in 2010 who had apparently told him what he wanted to hear about immigration. But we only ever hear anecdotes from people he's spoken to that back him up; he doesn't talk much about the doctor he met, who told him to sod off out of his hospital, does he?

Who knows. Maybe there is a school somewhere that keeps highlighter pens in a safe, because they're so scared of the H&S brigade. Maybe there's a rush of illegal immigrants heading down the pet shop in the belief that it'll prevent their rightful deportation. Maybe some of these anecdotes are true, or grounded in truth. But even if they are, is that justification enough to change things? How about looking beyond the anecdotes, and beyond the farcical exceptions to the rule, and wondering why these bits of legislation are around in the first place?

Why not just be honest? If you don't like the Human Rights Act because you think it gives people too many human rights, then say so. Don't say it's stopping judges from deporting people because they've got cats when it hasn't stopped judges deporting people because they've got cats; that makes you seem childish and the reasons for your lawmaking flimsy.

If you don't like health and safety legislation because it means businesses are annoyed at having to spend money on safeguarding their employees -- and let's face it, if a few manual workers get horribly mutilated or killed, they weren't going to vote Tory anyway -- then don't be shy. Why use these daft anecdotes to get the point across?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear