Balls strengthens his position at Treasury questions

The shadow chancellor enjoyed a better day in the House as he pinned down Danny Alexander on living standards.

After his much-panned response to George Osborne's Autumn Statement, Ed Balls enjoyed a better outing at today's Treasury questions. Noting that Osborne had claimed that living standards were rising (based on the flawed "real household disposable income measure"), but that the IFS had subsequently said that they were falling, he asked Danny Alexander (who stood in for the absent Osborne): "who's right?" After quipping that it was a "pleasure" to see the shadow chancellor in his place and mockingly condemning the "unattributable briefing" against him from the Labour benches, Alexander could only reply that "the whole reason why millions of Britons are under financial pressure is because Labour’s economic mess cost every household in this country £3,000". But while voters might have accepted this line in 2010, they are less likely to do so after three years of stagnation. 

Balls then noted that Osborne was away in Brussels, where "the government is taking legal action to stop a cap on bank bonuses", and asked: "are the Liberal Democrats really right behind the Conservatives on this one too?" Alexander replied by joking that the shadow chancellor had "appointed a new special adviser on hand gestures - Greg Dyke" (a reference to Dyke's cut-throat gesture), adding: "at least that's the gesture his colleagues are making every time they hear him in the House." One was left with the impression that Alexander was more interested in cracking pre-prepared gags than in responding to Balls's questions. 

The shadow chancellor undoubtedly has his critics in Labour. Some MPs believe that he remains too defensive over the record of the last Labour government and too preoccupied with proving that he was right about austerity. Others, on the Blue Labour wing of the party, argue that he is insufficiently committed to Miliband's reformist agenda (one told me that he was a "conventional Brownite" who "doesn't really buy responsible capitalism"). But after his strong performance today and his defiant interview (stating in response to briefing: "I couldn't give a toss") on Sky, the odds on him being replaced as shadow chancellor will lengthen again. As Miliband recognises, there is no one else with the rare combination of political cunning and economic aptitude required to do the job. 

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. 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