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Boris Johnson’s wrestling match, the remarkable rise of En Marche! and what millennials do for fun

Plus Jeremy Corbyn talks trains, drains and his allotment.

If there’s any competition at all for which Tory politician has had the worst election, it has to be a straight fight between Theresa May and Boris Johnson. The former’s stumbles have been well chronicled, topped by her signing off a manifesto with a landmine inside.

Johnson’s terrible campaign, on the other hand, has largely escaped comment. He was wheeled out to take a pop at Jeremy Corbyn, calling him a “mutton-headed mugwump”, but it felt like an old rocker wobbling back on stage to belt out his early hits because his divorce had cleaned him out. The streak of thuggishness hidden millimetres below his jovial bonhomie keeps peeking through, too.

There was an extraordinary moment after the BBC Question Time debate when he was on television with the Labour election co-ordinator, Andrew Gwynne, who threw an arm around his shoulders as they bickered over the election. Johnson responded with a kind of odd wrestling manoeuvre that sent Gwynne stumbling forward into the microphone stand. “I’m so sorry,” he smirked, with the smirk of someone who is used to getting away with bad behaviour because of his class, race and accent. (Try to imagine the reaction to, say, David Lammy or Len McCluskey acting like this.)

It reminded me of an earlier incident when he was photographed sneaking a look at Robert Peston’s list of questions before his appearance on the ITV show. He looked like the favourite son of a medieval baron who was confident the bastard son would get punished instead of him. He turns 53 this month. Surely the statute of limitations on treating him like a scamp must be over?

Drains and trains

If nothing else, Jeremy Corbyn showed during this campaign that snarling xenophobia isn’t the only way to capture anti-establishment sentiment. His standout performance was on the One Show sofa, where he just seemed . . . normal. A year after a referendum that was used to kick the political class, here was someone who liked trains, drains and his allotment. It was a useful reminder of why so many people fell for him in the first place.

The Osborne legacy

The row over police cuts reminded me that they were part of another great George Osborne wheeze, offered at the time as evidence of his strategic brilliance. In 2015, police chiefs were already worried by the 14 per cent real-terms cut to funding they’d suffered since the start of the coalition, and started rumbling about the impossibility of further reductions. The then chancellor refused to quash speculation about a 10 per cent cut in funding. He lured Labour into ­attacking his plans, before announcing in the Autumn Statement – with the flourish of a stage magician – that they would not be cut at all. “There will be real-terms protection for police funding,” he said. “The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police.” Cue headlines about poor old Labour stumbling into his dastardly trap.

There was only one teeny problem. A letter from Home Secretary Theresa May (remember her?) soon afterwards clarified that there would be a real-terms cut in central funding, with forces expected to rely on the council-tax precept to keep their budgets flat. By March 2016, Andrew Dilnot of the UK statistics authority had ruled that Osborne “could have done more to provide greater clarity about the data”. As with many of Osborne’s cunning plans, this “rabbit pulled out of the chancellor’s hat” turned out to have myxomatosis.

Escape artist 

In an attempt to keep hold of my sanity, I spent an hour last Saturday running around Greenwich, trying to find tiny plastic circles with codes on and occasionally sprinting away from guards. This was part of a game called Citydash, run by a company called Fire Hazard. Under the radar, this kind of live-action adventure is phenomenally popular across Europe. So far, I’ve played Escape Rooms – where you get an hour to figure out a bunch of clues to unlock a door – in Copenhagen, Seville and Oslo.

“At the beginning of 2013 there was just one escape room in Britain; today there are 598,” wrote Laurence Dodds of the Telegraph in December. “More than half of them have opened in the last year alone, and only 15 per cent of them are in London.” (Barack Obama did one in Hawaii last Christmas Eve.) Next month, I’m playing a live-action version of The Crystal Maze in north London, which has been pretty much booked solid since it opened 15 months ago.

The success of these games tells us several interesting things. First, for a generation brought up on point-and-click video games, this kind of group puzzle-solving comes naturally. Second, there are enough young people in Britain with decent disposable incomes to afford them: a single Crystal Maze ticket is £53.50 and most Escape Rooms are around £20 to £30. Finally, aren’t millennials wholesome? Not only did I enjoy myself much more than I would have done bellowing at people in a noisy pub, I even voluntarily did some exercise.

Quick Marche!

We might see the most astonishing political event of the year next week. Polls suggest that the French president Emmanuel Macron’s new party, En Marche!, could take half the 577 seats in the country’s legislative elections on 11 and 18 June. En Marche! was only founded on 6 June last year.

Escape artist II

I enjoyed Wonder Woman, despite some weightless CGI, and I like it even more after reading this remark by its director, Patty Jenkins: “Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing . . . We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.” I think that sums up how many on the left feel about politics, now, too: we can’t afford to be cynical about humans’ ability to change the world. We have to be sincere. The world is in crisis. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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David had taken the same tablets for years. Why the sudden side effects?

Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot.

David had been getting bouts of faintness and dizziness for the past week. He said it was exactly like the turns he used to get before he’d had his pacemaker inserted. A malfunctioning pacemaker didn’t sound too good, so I told him I’d pop in at lunchtime.

Everything was in good order. He was recovering from a nasty cough, though, so I wondered aloud if, at the age of 82, he might just be feeling weak from having fought that off. I suggested he let me know if things didn’t settle.

I imagined he would give it a week or two, but the following day there was another visit request. Apparently he’d had a further turn that morning. The carer hadn’t liked the look of him so she’d rung the surgery.

Once again, he was back to normal by the time I got there. I quizzed him further. The symptoms came on when he got up from the sofa, or if bending down for something, suggesting his blood pressure might be falling with the change in posture. I checked the medication listed in his notes: eight different drugs, at least two of which could cause that problem. But David had been taking the same tablets for years; why would he suddenly develop side effects now?

I thought I’d better establish if his blood pressure was dropping. I got him to stand, and measured it repeatedly over a period of several minutes. Not a hint of a fall. And nor did he now feel in the slightest bit unwell. I was stumped. David’s wife had been watching proceedings from her armchair. “Mind you,” she said, “it only happens mid-morning.”

The specific timing made me pause. I asked to see his tablets. David passed me a carrier bag of boxes. I went through them methodically, cross-referencing each one to his notes.

“Well, there’s your trouble,” I said, holding out a couple of the packets. One was emblazoned with the name “Diffundox”, the other “Prosurin”. “They’re actually the same thing.”

Every medication has two names, a brand name and a generic one – both Diffundox and Prosurin are brand names of a medication known generically as tamsulosin, which improves weak urinary flow in men with enlarged prostates. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe generically in almost all circumstances – if I put “tamsulosin” on a prescription, the pharmacist can supply the best value generic available at that time, but if I specify a brand name they’re obliged to dispense that particular one irrespective of cost.

Generic prescribing is good for the NHS drug budget, but it can be horribly confusing for patients. Long-term medication keeps changing its appearance – round white tablets one month, red ovals the next, with different packaging to boot. And while the box always has the generic name on it somewhere, it’s much less prominent than the brand name. With so many patients on multiple medications, all of which are subject to chopping and changing between generics, it’s no wonder mix-ups occur. Couple that with doctors forever stopping and starting drugs and adjusting doses, and you start to get some inkling of quite how much potential there is for error.

I said to David that, at some point the previous week, two different brands of tamsulosin must have found their way into his bag. They looked for all the world like different medications to him, with the result that he was inadvertently taking a double dose every morning. The postural drops in his blood pressure were making him distinctly unwell, but were wearing off after a few hours.

Even though I tried to explain things clearly, David looked baffled that I, an apparently sane and rational being, seemed to be suggesting that two self-evidently different tablets were somehow the same. The arcane world of drug pricing and generic substitution was clearly not something he had much interest in exploring. So, I pocketed one of the aberrant packets of pills, returned the rest, and told him he would feel much better the next day. I’m glad to say he did. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game