Has this speech won Balls the shadow chancellorship?

Balls thrusts himself back into the spotlight with attack on George Osborne as a “growth denier”.

In his column in this week's magazine, Irwin Stelzer argues that Ed Balls is the only Labour leadership candidate with a solid grasp of economics. Balls will be hoping that his speech at Bloomberg HQ this morning (the setting for George Osborne's attack on the "deficit deniers" last week) has proved as much.

All of the Labour leadership candidates have challenged the government's decision to cut spending this year, but Balls's speech is the most sustained and forensic attack on the coalition's economic policy we've yet seen.

In a neat riposte to Osborne, he labelled the Chancellor a "growth denier", who is ignoring warning signs of a double-dip recession. "What he is now doing is the equivalent of ripping out the foundations of the house just as the hurricane is about to hit," he said.

With figures from both left and right now saying a double-dip recession is possible, Osborne can no longer credibly claim that such talk is "Labour scaremongering". But will the "growth denier" label hurt him? That will likely depend on what the Q3 figures (due out on 26 October) look like.

For now, while polling suggests that voters are increasingly nervous of the coming cuts, most accept Osborne's argument that the need to reduce the country's £149bn deficit trumps everything else. Voters who are tightening their belt see no reason why the state should not do the same.

As for Balls, having correctly predicted that the coalition would raise VAT to 20 per cent, he will be hoping that his prescience has not deserted him on this occasion. If "the hurricane" that Balls warns of doesn't materialise, his words will be dismissed as partisan hyperbole.

But the politics of this speech may turn out to be as significant as the economics. As the Spectator's Peter Hoskin points out, the speech was a transparent pitch for the shadow chancellorship. But whether Balls turns out to be the shadow chancellor of the coalition's dreams or nightmares may depend on what those Q3 figures look like.

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