Responding to the Spectator

James Macintyre responds to the <a href="http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/3456486/responding-t

Why is it that attacking the Labour party in print is seen as fair game in the Westminster playground and common practice for “neutral” journalists, but dare to turn your fire on David Cameron's Conservative party and you are dismissed as a mad, foaming-at-the-mouth red under the bed?

That's the question I asked myself not for the first time as I was alerted – while printing off Cameron's latest speech on how to cut public spending - to the attack by the Spectator's political editor, Fraser Nelson on my article in this week's New Statesman scrutinising the extent of Tory policy reform.

For going against the conventional wisdom that Cameron has “modernised” the Tory party, and looking at the major policy areas with scepticism, I am accused of being “from the Planet Zog”, of the “hard-left” viewpoint that “anything short of nationalisation of the means of production is a capitalist plot”.

Well, I am glad Nelson raises nationalisation because the point I was trying to make was precisely that Cameron has failed in making any major change on a par with either Tony Blair's symbolic abolition of the nationalising “Clause IV”, or for that matter, with Neil Kinnock's spectacular expulsion of Militant in the 1980s. (My point is that Kenneth Clarke, on the other hand, would have made abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts the party's “Clause IV”, creating a compromise with the electorate of the sort that Cameron, and the unsackable George Osborne, have repeatedly said is not needed (we'll see).)

Instead, from the moment he emerged on the scene and wowed the media with a speech without notes in 2005, Cameron has been awarded the title “moderniser” for nothing more than a series of photo-opportunities.

Nelson, ever keen bravely to leap to the defence of the Tory leadership, disputes this, and – unlike during the radio appearance to which he refers – attempts to list some of the changes. Unfortunately, they make uncharacteristically lightweight reading:

His first and main claim (other than references to language and rhetoric changes which prove my point neatly) is that Cameron has “embraced the social justice agenda”; but substance to back this dramatic assurance there comes none. Forgive me if I sound like I'm from the “hard-left” but my understanding of social justice is that it involves wildly leftist concepts like mild redistribution of wealth; helping the poor, and so on (not, say, raising the inheritance tax threshold for the very rich).

Incidentally, I note that Nelson's blog sits next to another Spectator one by Peter Hoskin, entitled “The Tories are ramping up their spending cut rhetoric”. I hope Nelson wouldn't smear his colleague with the “hard-left” gag.

Nelson also denies that Cameron made a U-turn on grammar schools, despite the fact that his original plan of saying there will be no new ones under a Tory government was reversed, with Cameron appeasing his Tory critics, explicitly stating this was not a “Clause IV” moment and saying “I don't go around picking a fight with my party”. I am surprised Fraser, an assiduous Cameron-watcher, “missed” the U-turn story when it was in covered by the rest of the Tory press.

Nelson also ridicules my claim that Cameron is set to penalise single mothers – perhaps this is one of the “lies” he mysteriously refers to towards the end of his blog. He must, then, have missed the story that Cameron will reward through the tax system married couples, and middle class couples when one of those is wealthy enough to stay at home. These are not, I fancy, policies aimed at the single mother on a council estate in Hull.

As to Nelson's wacky claim that Cameron has softened the Tory message on immigrants, after the Tory leader has repeatedly used the populist Sun to lament the flooding of Britain by too many of them, and accuse the Government of “lying” over “uncontrolled”, “unsustainable” numbers, I am more surprised Nelson missed them, too, than I am that Cameron has taken such an approach given his masterminding of the notoriously racist “are you thinking what we're thinking” 2005 general election strategy.

But, hey, I'm not a great one for blogging – yet - and like Nelson, no doubt, I have one or two other things to do, though there is one point on which I would agree with Nelson: we have indeed not met. So, let me suggest we have a debate on the great Cameron hologram – a venue or platform of his choice. Fraser, I look forward to meeting you.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for 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