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How Brexit has helped Labour

For Jeremy Corbyn, there have been political benefits as well as costs from the EU referendum.

For Theresa May, Brexit was supposed to be an electoral elixir. It would justify her demand for a landslide majority and unite former Ukip voters behind the Conservatives. A divided Labour, meanwhile, would be squeezed by pro-Leave parties on one side and by the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats on the other. Jeremy Corbyn, it was said, would never be trusted to negotiate Brexit.

Early opinion polling appeared to confirm this analysis. Ukip's collapse pushed the Conservatives' vote share up to 50 per cent, while the Lib Dems gained at Labour's expense. But more recent polls, all of which have shown a significant fall in the Tories' lead, challenge this view.

The respects in which Brexit has helped, rather than hindered, Labour are now clearer. Though the bulk of 2015 Ukip voters have embraced the Tories, around 20 per cent have defected to Corbyn's party. The supposed threat once posed to Labour in the north by Paul Nuttall's party has evaporated. Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats have struggled to break through and may yet poll below the 7.9 per cent of the vote they received in 2015 (losing seats in the process).

Corbyn's decision to vote for Article 50 and to oppose a second referendum was shrewder than pro-EU critics suggested. The Lib Dems' distinctive stance has done them little good. Britain has seen a return to traditional two-party combat, which bodes well for Labour's future.

On policy, Brexit has marginalised some issues, and magnified others, to Corbyn's benefit. In 2015, the Conservatives opened a potent dividing line with Labour by pledging to eliminate the deficit by 2020. But Brexit, which led to the postponement of the target until 2025, has made it harder for the Tories to present themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility. The pound's sharp depreciation, meanwhile, has led to a renewed living standards squeeze, depriving the Conservatives of the feel-good factor they enjoyed in 2015 (owing to low oil prices and rising wages).

At the last election, Labour was harmed by its opposition to an EU referendum and its confused stance on immigration. But Brexit has answered the former question and made the latter easier to address. "Free movement will end when we leave the EU," Corbyn replies when challenged on immigration. Having vowed to acquire significant control over migration, the Tories have been left struggling to explain where the cuts would fall. Brexit, as I have written before, has forced cabinet ministers to acknowledge that Britain needs immigrants.

Though formal negotiations are due to begin just 11 days after the election, the specifics of EU withdrawal have been little discussed. Rather, the focus has returned to issues such as the NHS and education, where Labour is strongest. As the referendum demonstrated, there is a large electoral appetite for populist offers such as "£350m a week" for the health service. Corbyn's interventionist manifesto, which promises the abolition of tuition fees, universal free school meals and the renationalisation of the railways, is well-crafted for a country "taking back control." This is a collectivist moment, not an individualist one.

Yet Labour's task on 8 June remains a forbidding one. The mass defection of Ukippers has helped keep up the Tories' vote share above 40 per cent. Even if Labour matches the 35 per cent of the vote secured by Tony Blair in 2005 it may fall short of victory. Most of the party's candidates continue to expect a comfortable Conservative majority. But as the campaign has shown, Brexit creates opportunities, not just risks, for Labour.

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