After testing positive for coronavirus, Boris Johnson followed government guidelines and went into self-isolation. Leading the government remotely, the prime minister dialled into video conferences, recorded messages for his Twitter feed and appeared briefly to take part in the now weekly nationwide applause for the NHS. On Sunday, he entered hospital for tests but would, according to 10 Downing Street, continue to work as normal — or as normal as the UK’s lockdown permits.
On Monday evening, everything changed.
After the PM’s condition deteriorated and he was moved to intensive care, attention turned to the role of Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, and first secretary of state. Raab had previously been named as the minister who would take over if Johnson became too ill to carry on and has now been asked to take on duties “where necessary”. For now, and as long as the prime minister remains too unwell to work, Raab will deputise.
This is not entirely new territory for the UK. Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan all suffered with ill health during their time in office in the 1950s and early 1960s, with Eden and Macmillan allowing others to take over in their absence. Churchill, however, kept his stroke hushed up.
Prime ministers also allow colleagues to deputise if they are overseas or on holiday. But a formal second-in-command role is not a part of British politics. The hierarchy of the cabinet birthed the title ‘first secretary of state’. Other prime ministers have bestowed the designation ‘deputy prime minister’. But neither is automatically who would become acting or caretaker prime minister if anything happened to the incumbent. Such a role is not a part of the UK’s constitution and there is no clear transfer of powers.
The lack of such a contingency has been shown up by the worsening of Johnson’s illness. Other countries do have contingency plans. This experience shows that knowing who would take over, how those powers transfer across, and the limit of them is of even greater importance when the country is in the middle of a crisis.
“The lack of contingency plan and the transfer of power has been shown up by the worsening of Johnson’s illness.”
This is the first time in half a century that a PM has had to cede control while still in office, and apparently Johnson has limited the authority he is passing over. Dominic Raab will continue to work from the Foreign Office, not Downing Street. He will not be holding the prime minister’s weekly meeting with the Queen, and he has no power to hire or fire ministers. Raab will chair meetings, will work through the paperwork that would otherwise have landed on the prime minister’s desk, and will no doubt take a leading role in the government’s daily press conferences — but government will be ruled by the cabinet in Johnson’s stead, not by Raab alone. The prime minister is ‘the first amongst equals’; in practice Raab will still be a minister among equals.
If this situation continues, Raab will need to work closely with his cabinet colleagues and adopt a more collegiate style than any recent PM. Raab, who has neither Johnson’s personal authority nor the personal mandate of an election-winning leader, will not be able to assert himself over his colleagues — but nor can he allow the cabinet to descend into infighting and indecision.
The same is true throughout government. The officials and staff in 10 Downing Street, and across government departments, will need to know who to turn to for decisions, instruction and leadership. No government can function for long with a leader who has been forced to step down and a deputy who has no power to step in.
In government, the hope must be that Johnson will quickly recover and Raab will only provide brief cover. If that doesn’t happen, and Raab fails to apply the right level of grip, it will only increase questions as to why the UK doesn’t have contingencies for what should happen when a PM becomes sick.
Catherine Haddon is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government