Labour is the loser from this shameful affair

The irony is that it should have been a good week for Brown

It's no surprise that Gordon Brown remains leader of the Labour Party this morning. This was the third coup attempt against Brown and the most inept yet. As Steve Richards argues in the must-read column of the morning, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have inflicted terrible damage on the party, leaving Labour "the biggest victim".

The reason why the plot failed to prompt a cabinet resignation and attracted only minimal backbench support is that there remains no substantial evidence that Labour would fare better under an alternative leader. The polls show no popular enthusiasm for Harriet Harman, David Miliband or Alan Johnson.

The plot came in what should have been a good week for Brown. He turned in one of his best performances at PMQs, showing signs of the skill and wit that once made him a feared Commons opponent. He embarrassed David Cameron over his equivocations on marriage and tax, which forced the Tory leader to admit on the Today programme this morning that he had "messed up".

And now a new Sun/ICM poll shows Labour cutting the Tories' lead again, this time to 9 points, putting the party within reach of a hung parliament. The poll also confirms what we instinctively know: that Brown's removal would do little to boost Labour's ratings. Some 82 per cent of voters say it would either make no difference or encourage them to vote Labour if he stayed.

The lukewarm cabinet support for Brown confirms the alienation many ministers feel from his premiership, but there is a world of difference between discontent and outright rebellion. It was staggeringly naive of Hewitt and Hoon not to anticipate this reality.

Their intervention has gifted the Tories and Lib Dems the chance to argue again and again that Labour is a divided party at a time when the country needs a strong, united government. It may be a cliché to say that the electorate hates divided governments but, as Peter Riddell reminds us this morning, it is true. Hewitt and Hoon have done more damage to Labour in a day than Cameron could have hoped to achieve all month.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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