The Conservative Leadership Contest: A Scientific Perspective

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

The contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the conservative party is well underway, receiving prime time TV coverage, despite the fact that only paid-up members of the conservative party get to decide.

Ergo, this whole circus is a bit of a slap in the face for most of us, like having your boss laugh in your face when you apply for a promotion but insisting on holding interviews for the role in your front room.

But, what does this this contest mean for science in the UK?

The actual answer is; who the hell knows?

The modern Tory MP will change their mind several times before they reach the end of a sentence, so making predictions based on their claims and statements is like looking for meaning in the farts of a diseased cow.

So, here’s an analysis of the remaining leadership contenders, based on their overall demeanour and past behaviours. I’ll throw some science stuff in too, to stay ‘on brand’.

And as a disclaimer, I wouldn’t normally criticise someone based on their appearance or background, but given how Boris Johnson has a long history of that and the Conservatives still think he should run the country, they’re presumably fine with it, right?


Jeremy Hunt says he thinks there should be a reduction in the abortion time limit in the UK from 24 weeks to 12. This is exactly the sort of view you’d have if you’ve spent years actively ignoring everything the entire medical community tells you.

But on the other hand, he’s no history of doing whatever other obscenely rich blokes tell him either. Apart from that time when he did exactly that. And presumably every other time that we’ve not heard about.

Given his record, Hunt’s tactic for dealing with Brexit will probably be to dictate terms and force the EU to accept them, or he’ll sack them. By the time he realises that’s not how anything works, hopefully it won’t be disastrously late.

Looks a bit like: Niles Craine, if he were possessed by Vigo from Ghostbusters 2

A friend to science?: What with his one-man crusade to crush the enthusiasm and functionality of every medic in the UK, it would be a stretch to say Jeremy Hunt is a friend to Science. He has, however, provided much raw data about the processes underlying parapraxis, aka ‘Freudian Slips’.


Sajid Javid’s main strategy involves emphasising his humble roots, as the working-class son of an immigrant bus driver, who made his way to Home Secretary. This shows he’s not like the other Eton-graduate contenders, and will champion those of poorer, humbler origins.

It’s a nice theory, but given his voting record is arguably as anti-immigrant as anyone’s, the evidence doesn’t support it.

Yes, he’s the son of immigrants, and it’s an impressive journey he’s taken. By the same token, a single sperm takes an impressive journey (on the cellular scale) when it successfully fertilises an ovum. And the first thing that happens there, is that the egg plasma membrane rapidly depolarises, so no other sperm can get in. Javid’s record suggests a similar approach.

His method of sorting Brexit would presumably be to negotiate a viable deal for himself while leaving everyone else to fight each other in the streets for the last sliver of rat meat.

Looks a bit like: A Sontaran accountant.

A friend to science?: His enthusiasm for power-poses, which have been scientifically debunked, suggests Javid isn’t exactly a big science fan.

But if he did become PM, there would be a wealth of psychological data produced. All the right-wing commenters and supporters who have relentlessly condemned Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London on the grounds that he’s a Muslim will have to perform some extreme mental gymnastics, to resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by having a right-wing PM with who even looks or sounds vaguely Muslim.

Donald Trump’s tweets alone would be worth it.

(continues below)

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In the not-too-distant future, mankind wages war against the machines, led by the evil sentient computer Skynet. With their loss seemingly imminent, the desperate machines develop a time machine, and send back a ruthlessly-efficient humanoid killing machine, clad in convincing human skin, back to the past, to assassinate the leader of the resistance.

That’s the plot of the film The Terminator.

Imagine Skynet is British, and its eventual defeat is somehow linked to Britain being in the EU and the continued credibility of the Conservative party, so they send back a human-mimicking machine to hopefully put an end to both things.

But because this is a right-wing British Skynet and uses classic right-wing British technical approaches (e.g. chemically castrating our finest technical minds), this human-resembling machine runs on Windows XP, has unsecured apps instead of facial expressions, and can’t function in much of the current UK, what with the poor infrastructure.

That’s Dominic Raab.

That’s why he can’t remember how ports work. That’s why he seems only dimly aware of how humans communicate.  That’s why he resigned over a deal he was nominally responsible for. I’m pretty sure the only reason Dominic Raab hates the EU is because he’s not GDPR compliant.

Look a bit like: An evil cyborg from the future. But, a crap cyborg. From a crap future. The sort that we’re guaranteed to get if he end up in charge.

A friend to science?: Raab could be useful to science if he can somehow be deactivated and dismantled, so engineers could study him and figure out how this futuristic technology works, and hopefully avoid making the same mistakes.


Don’t really want to add yet another image of Boris Johnson to the web, so just imagine a blonde wig on this, it’s basically the same.

Boris Johnson is a unique phenomenon in that he is essentially a quantum superposition of a politician. He embodies all possible outcomes and versions of Boris Johnson at once, and the Johnson that’s observed is dependent on who’s doing the observing and in what context. It’s unfortunate that of all the Boris Johnson’s present in superposition, every single one of them, is vile.

Yes, I know that’s not how quantum mechanics works. But that’s not how politics supposedly works either, yet here we are.

Boris Johnson also represents a large-scale physical manifestation of the uncertainty principle, in that the more you try to pin him down to a belief or principle, the further away from that thing he becomes.

All you can be sure about is that Boris Johnson will do whatever it takes to gain power. If a national survey were published on Monday that said 90% of the UK population were pro-bestiality, it would be completely in character for Johnson to marry a sheep by Wednesday, and have an affair with a goat by Saturday.

Looks a bit like: Something that inspires too many expletives to be listed here.

A friend to science? Many would argue that Boris Johnson could be viewed as a the living avatar of every negative aspect of Britain. If he becomes PM, as seems increasingly likely, we may be able to harness the laughter of every other nation on Earth as a form of clean renewable energy, so that’s something.


Michael Gove is another contender who comes from Humble Origins, but seems to have as much concern for them as most people have for the placenta that kept them alive in-utero. I.e. none.

Michael Gove recently hit the headlines after admitting to taking cocaine when he was younger, which by his own logic should mean he’s banned forever from having any role involving children, and I’m pretty sure ‘person in charge of a country of 70 million’ would fall under this umbrella.

Admittedly, there’s no evidence that earlier drug use has compromised his ability to run a country, although it seems to have scrambled his ability to clap. Clapping is a more complicated task than being Prime Minister, right? Let’s hope so.

Michael Gove’s crowning achievement is his appearance in this Stephen Collins cartoon, which sums up his political career better than I could.

Looks a bit like: A permanent resident of the uncanny valley. If he’d have been in government in the 80’s, his Spitting Image puppet would have looked more human than him.

A friend to science? If he goes up against Boris Johnson (again), we could at least answer that old question “What happens when an unstoppable arse meets and unlikeable object”. So there’s that.


Rory Stewart seems to represent the ‘best case scenario’ for most people watching the leadership contest, as he does seem to have the strongest grasp of things like ‘reality’ and ‘facts’.

People outside the Conservative membership seem to really like his “let’s not destroy the country if we can avoid it” approach, and the fact that this stands out is pretty much all you need to know about the current state of our politics.

Maybe Rory Stewart would be a good Prime Minister? But his voting record suggests he’s no different from his less-pleasant-seeming Conservative rivals. And his weird phone video faux pas suggests he’s a literal ‘hands off’ politician.

Looks a bit like: The lead character in a wacky comedy about a scarecrow that goes to Eton.

A friend to science?: Rory Stewart in charge may help matters regarding science, who knows. But it would be like a faecal transplant. The main digestive system stops working and causes problems, so you take a faeces sample from elsewhere, insert it into the compromised system, and hopefully the healthier bacteria it carries will spread and restore functioning.

It might work. But it’s still just a matter of moving shit around.

This is all a moot point anyway, as we all know who the real controller of the conservative party is, and that’s Nigel Farage, who has managed to insert himself into the Conservative Party machinery like a cordyceps fungus in the brain of an ant; hijacking its functioning and transforming it into a mindless zombie, before an inevitable and gruesome death.

It would be a satisfying conclusion if the ant weren’t somehow in charge of our lives. That’s where the analogy breaks down, admittedly.

This very angry but obviously satirical rant was by Dean Burnett. His latest book The Happy Brain is available in paperback now. You can also pre-order his new book for teens ‘Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up The Wall And What To Do About It’ from Amazon now.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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Image Credits : Gove, Raab, Javid, Hunt, Stewart

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