Cameron faces first Commons defeat

David Davis and Jack Straw manage to secure a debate on giving prisoners the vote.

David Cameron is staring down the barrel of his first Commons defeat as Prime Minister after Jack Straw and David Davis managed to secure a Commons debate on whether or not to give prisoners the vote.

With – according to Paul Waugh at PoliticsHome – just two Conservative MPs supporting votes for prisoners, Cameron is not in a strong position. The parliamentary arithmetic suggests the coalition will lose any vote on the topic.

The issue stems from a decision in the European Court of Human Rights, which argued that the UK had a "legal obligation" to let some prisoners vote. To avoid a potentially huge number of legal challenges from British prisoners, Cameron decided not to contest the decision and to allow prisoners serving sentences of less than four years the vote, despite confessing that the idea made him feel "physically ill".

It's a decision that has not gone down well with the right of the party. Davis used the discord over the issue among Conservatives to his advantage. He said that the thought of rapists being given the right to vote made him "physically sick".

"I yield to no one in my commitment to real human rights, but it is not an expression of human rights to give rapists and violent criminals the right to vote," said the former shadow home secretary.

Davis tickled the ears of his Conservative colleagues even further when he framed the debate as matter of parliament versus Europe.

"This is clearly a matter for parliament and not the European Court of Human Rights," Davis said. "It's for parliament to stand up and say, 'No, this is our decision, not yours,' and then for the government to go back and seek a solution."

Straw went down this route too, arguing that if he were still justice secretary, he "would actually welcome this debate because it would strengthen my hand for dealing with Strasbourg".

"One of the main arguments of the Strasbourg court is that there has not been a substantive debate on the policy. What we are saying is let's have an early debate on the policy now," continued Straw.

Since losing the Conservative leadership election in 2005, Davis has rarely passed on the opportunity of making life difficult for Cameron. In somewhat bizarre circumstances, Davis resigned as an MP in 2008 in an attempt to trigger a wider debate on civil liberties – apparently his position as shadow home secretary did not allow this, whereas standing in an virtually uncontested by-election would have.

This time, however, Davis seems to have got it right. While discord in the Lib Dems was very much a theme of 2010, an increasingly annoyed right wing of the Conservative Party – fed up with perceived concessions to the Lib Dems – might be the dominant issue for the coalition in 2011.

Ironically, it was the coalition's creation of the backbench business committee that has created this impasse. Without it, Straw and Davis would not have been able to orchestrate a debate on the issue. The coalition might yet be bloodied by one of its own policies.

 

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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