Rory Stewart in the House of Commons.
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Senior Labour figures back Rory Stewart for top defence post

Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis endorse the Tory MP as defence select committee chair. 

One small but significant change to the way parliament works in recent years has been the election of chairs to select committees. Previously they were in the gift of party whips. The innovation has been welcomed by MPs who felt that the authority of the legislature had been systematically undermined by an over-mighty executive (although that is more of a hazard when one party has a commanding majority).

One such election happens tomorrow when a new chair will be named for the defence select committee. It is a significant post given the sensitivity of the issues in hand – the future of funding for armed forces in an era of budget austerity; rolling anxiety about Britain’s appetite for military intervention; rapidly shifting views of what constitutes a sensible strategic deployment of limited resources as the nature and scale of new threats emerge and old ones recede.

By predetermined allocation the job goes to a Conservative, but the race is fiercely competitive within that pool. All MPs get a vote, which means candidates have to demonstrate a capacity to work with opposition colleagues. Other attractive criteria include, naturally, experience and expertise in defence matters and a record of independence. The latter point is emphasised by those parliamentarians who see the committee chair as a place where policy rigour and free-thought must trump obedience to the party line.

An early favourite was Keith Simpson, a junior minister at the Foreign Office. Now the lead contenders are said to be Rory Stewart, an author, expert on Afghanistan and former diplomat in Iraq and Julian Lewis, a former front-bencher who shadowed the armed forces portfolio in opposition. Other candidates include Bob Stewart, a former Army officer and Julian Brazier, a junior minister under John Major and a territorial army veteran. At the back of the pack are Crispin Blunt, Tobias Elwood and James Gray.

Tory backers of Rory Stewart are today gladdened by a potentially vital intervention from the Labour camp. Three prominent opposition MPs – Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis – have backed Stewart in an email circulated to colleagues. The latter two signatories in particular will attract note since Ainsworth is a former Defence Secretary and Jarvis served in the Paras and is often cited as one of Labour’s stars-yet-to-rise. Whether their intervention makes a difference will become clear tomorrow. Meanwhile, the effusive tone of the endorsement makes interesting reading for followers of such matters:

 

Dear Colleagues,


We are writing to ask if you might support Rory Stewart to be Chair of the Defence Select Committee. He is a fresh and independent voice and a very thoughtful analyst of UK Defence Policy. He has challenged the government's Afghan strategy, calmly and with real impact. But he continues to argue ‎that interventions are sometimes – as in Bosnia or Rwanda - necessary.‎ He does this on the basis of a unique experience working in and with the military across all the major conflicts of the last two decades.


Having served briefly as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, he served with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, in Bosnia, in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign and in Iraq (where he as the deputy governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq). He then left the Foreign Office to set up an NGO, Turquoise Mountain, in Afghanistan. He spent three years living in Kabul establishing a clinic, a primary school, and leading an urban regeneration project. He was appointed Professor of Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School and lectures in Defence Colleges and universities in the US and Britain. He has written three books on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Intervention, focused on defence policy.


He has demonstrated over four years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he is a collegial, non-Partisan colleague with exceptional experience and knowledge of recent conflicts. He is not tied to the ‘Cold War’ but instead has reflected deeply on future challenges from Human Rights to Cyber-Security. We feel he would be a dedicated, intelligent, fair and open-minded Chair, never afraid to hold the government to account. We would be very grateful if you would consider voting for him.

 

With best wishes,

 

Tessa Jowell

Bob Ainsworth

Dan Jarvis

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