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Rock vs hard place

If the PM steps down, who will do right by research?

As the Conservative Party conference draws to a close today, we draw comfort from the fact that the lack of development on bigger matters such as Brexit and the determination of the party’s unpopular leader, Theresa May, to stay in her post as prime minister, has made space for discussion of smaller, more arcane topics.

Science was given some good news in the reshaping of the Conservative Science and Technology Forum think tank (see Related Article). May also gave the nod to students by promising to freeze annual tuition fees at £9,250.

These moves, however, will do little to improve her popularity, and the refusal of the prime minister to legally guarantee the rights of European citizens in Britain post-Brexit continues to erode her support among academics.

Several plans to overthrow May as leader have surfaced. With the multi-pronged threat of Brexit, an economic downturn and the resulting lack of funding and skilled people, it is worth considering whether any potential replacement would be better for scientists and researchers.

The first candidate who springs to mind is Philip Hammond, now chancellor. In public he has backed May to the hilt, and he has repeatedly chastised his party colleagues for assailing her position. But in politics you keep your enemies closer than your friends, and Hammond has shown in many instances that he has a mind of his own.

Hammond has one big thing going for him: it was he who encouraged British researchers to continue to apply for EU funding after the referendum, and who promised to underwrite any Horizon 2020 grant agreement signed before the final Brexit date. His words of reassurance have soothed the hearts of thousands of project participants and play a crucial part in the UK’s continued attractiveness to researchers from the European Union.

Hammond’s calm demeanour and support for the ‘soft’ Brexit option, in which the UK would retain access to the single market, make him a less dangerous candidate in a situation where few things are going well. But Hammond’s stance is also his main problem, as his principal opponent, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, is shamelessly trying to ride the populist wave all the way to Downing Street.

Boris’s brother, Jo Johnson, is the science minister, but Boris holds little love for research and academia. He used to be a political buddy of Michael Gove, who famously said that people have “had enough of experts”, and he uses anti-science propaganda in his campaigning. Johnson, an Oxford graduate, is not beyond casting doubt on climate change if it wins him support. His one credit may be his vocal support for London’s MedCity, a virtual life sciences hub, during his stint as mayor. But at heart he is a populist politician, for whom truth and fact come secondary to favourable public opinion.

Other candidates may be waiting in the wings. Amber Rudd, home secretary, has been mooted, as has David Davies, the Brexit secretary known mostly for his derisive sneer. But when the knives are sharpened for May’s dethroning, there will probably be only two candidates to replace her. For the sake of science, one can only hope that Boris Johnson’s star will have burned itself out by then.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight