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Bill and Brexit will define Johnson’s legacy

The farcical end to Jo Johnson's time as universities and science minister should not overshadow the huge changes that took place on his watch, says John Whitfield.

I would like to propose a three-year moratorium on the lazy use of comparisons to TV series The Thick of It when analysing events in UK politics.

I would like that moratorium to start, however, immediately after this article’s publication, because Armando Iannucci would need only a basic grasp of cut and paste to adapt Jo Johnson’s last 24 hours as universities and science minister for black-comedic purposes.

Last night, Johnson went into parliament—presumably with encouragement from number 10’s current Malcolm Tucker avatar—to defend Toby Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students. This morning, he was forced to portray Young’s resignation as evidence that he was the right man for the job all along. Then he got moved sideways into the Department for Transport.

As the 2017 election campaign got underway last spring, things looked different. Johnson had just got the Higher Education and Research Act onto the statute book. It took more than a little political skill to get the bill through a reluctant House of Lords against a tight deadline, making concessions on points that were symbolically important while keeping the main pillars of the legislation intact.

It would not have been unreasonable for Johnson to hope for a promotion in some future reshuffle—although it would always have been difficult to have had two Johnson brothers in the cabinet.

Instead, the government lost its majority, since when Theresa May’s cabinet took on the look of the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel, which no one can ever leave. Student finance has become politically toxic for the Tories and universities have been sucked into the culture wars. Events, dear boy, events.

Some have suspected that research was always a secondary priority for Johnson after universities—he did not come across as all that interested in science. Even so, UK research is very different to May 2015, when he arrived at what was then the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Johnson inherited Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils. He implemented what you might call Hard Nurse, ending the research councils’ direct line to government and absorbing them into the umbrella body UK Research and Innovation.

Whether that body succeeds or not will depend hugely on the effects of Brexit. Always a Remainer, Johnson played his hand about as well as he could have, given the uncertainty and the relatively low status of research and universities among the government’s Brexit priorities. He made the right noises on maintaining the ties between UK and EU research, and backed them with funding commitments.

Everything that’s happened in research policy since June 2016—including the long-term commitment to raise research spending in the Conservative manifesto, the industrial strategy unveiled last November, and the effort to enlist research in efforts to boost productivity and redress regional inequalities—should be seen in the light of the Brexit vote.

These are policies with potential; whether they achieve it will depend on factors that are largely beyond the control of what is now the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

As Johnson heads off to transport, his successor Sam Gyimah—another Remainer—will have his hands full dealing with higher education, and be tempted to leave research policy to take care of itself. But Brexit is still the big one.

What happens in the next six to nine months of negotiation with the EU will shape UK research for decades to come. That must be the minister’s focus, not today’s Twitter storm or tomorrow’s headlines.