The Tories think they can flush out Ed's inner red

Part of the strategy behind the land-grab on the "moral economy" is to nudge the Labour leader into

The fair capitalism debate that has rumbled on throughout this week looks likely to continue into the next one.

Business Secretary Vince Cable is delivering a speech on Tuesday on the subject of executive pay. (The coalition thinks some of it is too high, or rather, it isn't adequately indexed to commercial success.) Cable is speaking at an event hosted by the Social Market Foundation think tank, although Chuka Umunna, shadow Business Secretary, is trying to force Vince to announce his plans in parliament first. Umunna raised a point of order with the Speaker on Wednesday on the grounds that it is - as John Bercow has himself made clear in the past - bad form for ministers to bypass the House when presenting new policy.

It's a small point, but then parliamentary point-scoring is one of the few ways the opposition can have any impact at all. Trying to make Cable give an account of himself in parliament is a sensible tactical gambit since the Commons chamber is always a less forgiving environment than, well, anywhere really. Especially for Lib Dems.

Cable is quite a threat to Labour on this topic. His speech to the Lib Dem party conference last year covered a lot of the themes that are now established in the cannon of "responsible capitalism" rhetoric. And that was a week before Ed Miliband made his famous (at least to political obsessives) predators v producers speech at the Labour conference in Liverpool. Committed students of Vincology will know that his book - The Storm - concluded with a call for conscientious liberal reforms to capitalism in order to head off a populist attack from the far left and far right in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

Cable is also the only politician who can out-boast Ed Miliband when it comes to standing up to Rupert Murdoch - it is a badge of honour they both sport ostentatiously as evidence of their willingness to take on "vested interests".

As I wrote in my column this week, the Lib Dems badly need to be associated with something popular that the coalition is doing. Bashing bankers - a topic on which Vince has form - very much fits that bill.

The Tories, meanwhile, are playing a slightly different game. They are motivated chiefly by the need to close the "fair capitalism" subject down as a political playground for Ed Miliband. As I wrote in the column, Downing Street thinks it has enough material on responsibility and fairness in the Cameroon archive (going back to the brand decontamination "modernising" days) to persuade people that the prime minister has been into this stuff for years and that, by extension, it is not the exclusive property of the Labour leader.

But I now gather there is more to the strategy than a simple policy wardrobe raid. People close to Cameron are persuaded that Miliband's instincts are substantially to the left of his public pronouncements. The thinking in Number 10 is that, with a bit of pressure for ownership of this new centre ground, where it is fashionable to decry the ugly side of capitalism, Miliband can be nudged into a more fundamentalist stance. Part of the thinking behind Cameron's "moral markets" speech yesterday was to draw a dividing line between those who want capitalism to work better and those who think it is really a scam from top to bottom, with Labour on the wrong side. Cameron and Osborne want to maneouvre the Labour leader into a position where he sounds not pro-reform but anti-market. The Tories don't just want to expropriate Miliband, they want to drive him off into a tent by St Paul's.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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