Philip Hammond refuses to rule out second vote on Syria

Defence secretary says parliament could look again at the issue if circumstances "change very significantly".

Downing Street has spent the day fending off multiple calls for a second vote on Syria, stating that the government has "absolutely no plans" to go back to parliament. In addition, Nick Clegg said that he could not "foresee any circumstances" in which the possibility of military action would be raised again. 

But at defence questions this afternoon, Philip Hammond was careful to leave the government with some wriggle room. In response to shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, who has expressed "unease" at David Cameron's decision to take military action against Syria off the table, he said: 

Circumstances would have to change very significantly before parliament would want to look again at this issue.

That answer will prompt speculation about what those "circumstances" might be, the most obvious being another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.

But the political reality is that it suits both Cameron and Ed Miliband to close down debate over a second vote. Cameron is understandably reluctant to avoid appearing indecisive by putting military action back on the table and, in view of Labour's unpredictable stance, is not confident of winning a second vote.

Miliband, who narrowly managed to avoid a major party split, has little incentive to offer Cameron his support for raising the possibility of intervention. Shadow transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick resigned before last week's vote over Miliband's refusal to rule out intervention and I'm told by a party source that at least six other frontbenchers, including one shadow cabinet minister, were prepared to do so. After a woeful summer, Miliband has regained some authority as the man who prevented a precipitous rush to war even if, as Boris Johnson wrote today, "his real position has been more weaselly". It suits him to now treat the question of military action as closed.

With all this in mind, after last week's extraordinary events, it would be wise to avoid easy predictions. 

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stands in front of a Rapier System ground-to-air missile launcher during a visit to RAF Waddington near Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images.

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