PMQs sketch: The enemies of Deputy Clegg

Harriet adopted what some might call the dustbin lid strategy; bashing Nick about the head until he

The only good thing about being Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Lib Dems, apart from the salary and being chauffeur-driven, is that at least you know where your enemies are: everywhere.

It was no doubt this comforting thought that fixed the rictus grin on Nick Clegg's face as he sidled gingerly into the House of Commons to provide half an hour's sport for MPs deprived of their usual target at Prime Minister's Questions. It was when he made his way nervously to his seat that one wondered if he had been told in advance of the PM's decision to absent himself to the US, or if he had only discovered it when he switched on the 10 o'clock news last night.

Mind you, Dave was not the only absentee on the government benches as his minder, Chancellor George Osborne, was also reported to be on the American jaunt. Whether this was just to make sure the PM returns to the UK remains unclear.

With both missing, and Nick a bit short of Facebook friends, the best he could do to muster support was to place Danny Alexander, still bunking off school to do work experience at the Treasury, beside him.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was also present although one couldn't be sure if that was because he had not moved since last week.

PMQs has been the setting for the regular roasting of Dave in recent weeks by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has become rather adept at bringing out the beasty boy in the PM. But parliamentary tradition means that when Dave goes AWOL Ed M gets the day off as well, allowing a rare public outing for his deputy Harriet Harman.

One can only imagine that the PM had left messages to be woken early in his Washington bedroom so that he could breakfast over what normally would have been heading his way before Obama asked him if he fancied watching a game of basketball instead.

Nick knew he was in trouble even before he stood up as the announcement of his imminent appearance at the Despatch Box by Speaker Bercow produced jeers and cheers in equal volume.

Ed M's approach to skewering Dave is increasingly based on the knowledge that the PM doesn't do facts, and a statistic or two is enough to unnerve him. But Harriet clearly decided the forensic approach was not suited to Nick and instead adopted what some might call the dustbin lid strategy on her opponent, bashing him about the head until he quit. Harriet's plan was to expose again the rifts within the Lib Dems over re-organization of the National Health Service following the slapping Nick got at the Party's spring conference last weekend.

She name-dropped Shirley Williams, Lloyd George, Gladstone and even last week's occupier of the naughty step, Vince Cable, as those who would be spinning in their graves -- not yet Shirley or Vince of course -- at what he had done to their party.

Shirley, whose defection to the SDP helped sink Labour during the Eighties, was a "national treasure", declared Harriet, on a par with the National Health Service itself. By now the chamber was in full throat with imminent strokes on the faces of MPs on both sides of the House, as unintelligible insults were lobbed around the room at increasing volume.

Speaker Bercow intervened to demand calm and in that moment rode to the rescue of Clegg.

The Tories had turned up more than happy to see the Deputy Prime Minister toasted and roasted; if not for his grip on the coalition then at least for keeping a few of them out of well-paid jobs on the government payroll. You could see they were a little uneasy with the Harriet attack. But the intervention of the Speaker, who many now believe is a fully paid up member of the Labour Party, was just too much to bear.

There could have been no one more astonished than the Deputy PM himself to hear cheers coming from behind him as he fell back on the tried and trusted: "you had 13 years to put it right".

Perhaps realizing his unwitting part in the rescue, the Speaker then uttered the two words guaranteed to spark fear in any would-be holder of parliamentary power: Denis Skinner.

With the Gang of Four being out of the country, said Denis -- probably referring to the Gang of Three, since William Hague is also on the jolly with Dave and George -- it was Nick's chance to shine. Be a man, said Denis, and tell us what you really think about phone hacking, police horses and Andy Coulson.

Checking to see if he still had all his body parts, Nick just smiled and said he was glad Denis had not mellowed in his 42 years in the House.

Back in Washington, Dave must have thought: thanks be to Obama.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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