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Avoiding a snap election helps Theresa May - and George Osborne, too

The political interests of Theresa May and the man she sacked as Chancellor may align, for once. 

If she’s said it once, she’s said it a thousand times: there will not be an early election. Downing Street has once again moved to quell speculation that Theresa May will U-Turn on her pledge to see out the remaining three years of David Cameron’s term.

That decision locks the Prime Minister into three years in which her agenda will be frustrated repeatedly and her administration will likely become synonymous with the word “U-Turn”. Though, as I explain in this morning’s email, not all of those issues will go away with a bigger Conservative majority, and the damage to Theresa May’s reputation, whether deserved or not, for caution and an aversion to game-playing, is probably a greater loss in the long term than anything she won’t be able to pass these next three years.

There’s also a bigger win to be had by holding the election on 7 May 2020: the London mayoralty. Although Sadiq Khan runs ahead of Jeremy Corbyn as far as his popularity in the polls is concerned, as I explained at the time, as far as actual votes were concerned, he did about as well as a generic Labour candidate did on the night. Khan did best among young, educated professionals, ethnic minorities and middle-class public sector workers. That, before the wasting effect of the referendum and Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs in support of triggering Article 50, is basically the Corbyn coalition in a nutshell.

There were only two areas in which Khan could be said to have outrun Jeremy Corbyn in 2016: among Jewish voters, who rejected Labour at local elections held on the same day but who swung back to Khan; and in his home seat of Tooting, where he enjoyed a “native son” bounce. So if Labour do worse in 2020 than they did in 2016, there is reason to believe that Khan is in trouble. Indeed, every poll since 2017 has shown Labour way behind in London not only on their 2016 performance but their 2015 one as well.

Adding to Khan's difficulties, Labour constituencies got closer to their general election turnouts than Conservative ones did, on the whole. A London mayoral race fought on general election turnout probably helps his Tory challenger, though the effects are marginal.

Khan’s hope will be that he can do across the city in 2020 what he did in Tooting in 2016 – massively outrun a generic Labour candidate on the strength of his personal vote. Performing as well as a generic Labour candidate outside Tooting was enough to win in 2016 - it almost certainly won't be in 2020. 

But that gets harder if the mayoral election is held on the same day as the general one, not least because the evidence from other local elections held on the same day is that people tend to vote for the top of the ticket and then vote across the same party line across their remaining ballots. That has hurt third parties and defeated oppositions on general election day before. (Not least Labour in 2015, where the party lost seats at a local level as well as a parliamentary one.)

After the 2007 Scottish elections, when elections to the Scottish Parliament and to local authorities were held on the same day, causing confusion and chaos, it was ruled that it was best practice to hold contests with different electoral systems on different days. (That’s why the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have had their terms extended to five years not four, so they will not coincide with elections to Westminster.) But there’s no legal obligation to do this, so expected the Conservatives to do whatever best suits their interests.

Sadiq Khan’s best approach is to carve out a bigger personal brand for himself, in the hope of winning over enough people who will vote Conservative at Westminster but like him at City Hall.

But there’s an obstacle to that, too: George Osborne. The Conservative MP now edits London’s only newspaper, the Evening Standard, and may fancy a crack at the top job himself.

So Sadiq Khan’s path to victory in 2020 is narrower than the bookies’ odds suggest. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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