Ed Balls on his stammer, a double dip and Thatcher

Some of the highlights from the shadow chancellor’s first major interview.

Ed Balls's first major interview as shadow chancellor appears in today's Times (£). It's worth reading in full but I've selected some of the highlights for you below.

1. On his response to the negative growth figures

Balls makes it clear that he wasn't expecting the figures to be so poor: "My immediate reaction was shock and surprise, it was so unusual to have something that far outside expectations. It was a bit like being winded . . . It completely transformed people's view of politics, the country and the economy."

2. On the 50p tax rate

Balls sticks to the Miliband/Johnson line that the top rate should remain for the rest of this parliament but says nothing to suggest that it should become a permanent feature of the tax system.

He also avoids repeating his call for the starting threshold to be lowered from £150,000 to £100,000: "What Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson said, and I have inherited, is that we would definitely have a top rate of tax for all this parliament . . . I don't think it's sensible for people to go around saying as a matter of principle that a higher tax rate is better . . . But you have to find a way to have taxes which are fair."

3. On the possibility of a double-dip recession

He repeats his view that a double dip is possible, but not probable: "I don't think that's the most likely outcome but it is certainly a possibility . . . The most likely thing is that the economy will grow but it will be pretty anaemic."

4. On coping with his stammer

A revealing insight into how Balls manages his speech defect: "If somebody writes a speech for me I have to rewrite it or ad lib. If I use an autocue, I have to edit it in real time. The words will be in the wrong order. There will be certain consonants that I just can't say together. It would be impossible for me to start a sentence with an H. I often start sentences with 'look' or 'well' because the key thing is to get moving."

5. On why he prefers David Cameron to Nick Clegg

Asked to choose between the pair, Balls comments: "David Cameron. At least he is who he is."

6. Marx or Thatcher?

Elsewhere, in a transparent attempt to secure some "Red Ed" headlines, the Times asks him to choose between Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher. Balls, no doubt through gritted teeth, plumps for Thatcher.

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