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The real reason the Tories can't turn the UK into a post-Brexit tax haven

The Brexiteers attacking Philip Hammond should remember that the Conservatives don't have a parliamentary majority. 

“The British people are not going to lie down and say, too bad, we’ve been wounded,” Philip Hammond warned back in January. Were the EU to deny the UK a beneficial trade deal, the Chancellor told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, “we will change our [economic] model”. Tax cuts and deregulation would be deployed to transform Britain into a free market upstart capable of undercutting Brussels. 

Six months later, Hammond is arguing the diametrical reverse. “I often hear it said that the UK is considering participating in unfair competition in regulation and tax,” the Chancellor told Le Monde. “That is neither our plan nor our vision for the future. The amount of tax we raise as a percentage of our GDP puts us right in the middle of the pack. We don’t want that to change, even after we’ve left the EU. I would expect us to remain a country with a social, economic and cultural model that is recognisably European.”

Unsurprisingly, the Chancellor is being mocked from all sides for disagreeing with himself. “It’s one thing for cabinet members to contradict each other, but Hammond is taking the art of the Tory rift up a level – and creating a cabinet split with himself,” wrote Spectator editor Fraser Nelson. “This government has broken down into farce,” declared Labour's shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Peter Dowd. “The Chancellor is not only disagreeing with cabinet colleagues over Brexit, he is now in open dispute with himself given it is only his own comments on the matter in January which he is pretending to contradict.”

But there's an important point such derision ignores. In between Hammond's interviews there was the small matter of a general election. Had the Conservatives won the large majority they expected, the threat of a free market Brexit would remain. But without a majority at all, it is inconceivable. The Tories simply do not have the votes they need to slash taxes and regulation (as I noted last week.) Britain will not become the Hong Kong of the west (the oft-cited Singapore is a hotbed of interventionism.)

Though the hard Brexiteers will blame the “soft” Hammond for repudiating this path, the true blame lies with the voters. Had the Tories stood on the libertarian manifesto proposed by some, they would likely have fared worse, not better. As Labour's performance demonstrated, many voters crave a larger state. The Conservatives' free market wing has long hoped to use Brexit as a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. But as Hammond has accurately surmised, that option no longer exists. 

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