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The two fault lines of Brexit exposed by Barry Gardiner’s Good Friday Agreement remarks

The shadow international trade secretary claimed the risks to peace of a hard border are being “played up”.

Why did so many Remainers vote for Labour in the 2017 election? Was it Jeremy Corbyn's general bona fides with socially liberal voters, an anti-May vote, or about Brexit?

The real answer, of course, is “all of the above”, with interesting questions raised over which of those pulls is the most important.

But Barry Gardiner has done his bit for the sum of human knowledge after being caught on tape by Labour website The Red Roar talking about the Good Friday Agreement, and Ireland's concerns about it, in language more commonly associated with the DUP. The risks to peace of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland are being played up because of the economic consequences, the shadow international trade secretary has claimed.

The interview has been criticised by Irish politicians across the spectrum and by many in Labour, too, and Gardiner has apologised for the remarks, describing them as “informal” and clarifying that his use of the the word “shibboleth” was referring to its original Biblical meaning as a test of membership, not in the sense of an outdated belief. (Which you'd expect, given that Gardiner once planned to train as a priest.)

But it has exposed two fault lines: one within the opposition, the other within the government. Gardiner is one of the shadow cabinet’s most forceful advocates for a post-Brexit independent trade policy, privately claiming that the United Kingdom could use its trade deals to improve workers’ rights as an agent of left-wing policy internationally. But that involves leaving the customs union and single market: that is to say, it means having to explain away the difficulties of the Irish border.

That problem afflicts the government, too. Also making a fool of himself today is David Davis, who The Times' Henry Zeffman reports told a meeting of business leaders that Leo Varadkar's position on the border is a result of him bowing to pressure from Sinn Fein.

What unites Gardiner and Davis is the essential truth that you cannot reconcile either Labour or the Conservatives’ objectives for Brexit with their promises over the Irish border and their objectives as far as the Good Friday Agreement goes. Something will have to give.

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

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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge