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So, just who is running the country as Boris Johnson fights coronavirus?

Julian Glover


As the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, steps in for stricken Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Whitehall power vacuum is opening up, writes Julian Glover

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

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Priti Patel

Priti Patel

Dominic Raab

Dominic Raab

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Talk to people in politics, some of them making massive decisions about how to get the country through the coronavirus crisis, and you hear three things all at once. The first is real, sharp sympathy for Boris Johnson and everyone else suffering from this horrible illness.

News that he'd gone into intensive care brought people up short. It was frightening in a way that not much political news really is. They want him through this fast and back at his job. But they don't know how ill he is, or how long he will be out of action.

So, the second thing you hear is the obvious question: "Who's in charge?" Not yet in the sense of who is the actual Prime Minister (legally, Johnson is), but "in charge" as in who makes hard choices and resolves disputes?

This matters, because the PM is not like a president: they don't run the country day by day. Ministers can get on with the uncontroversial stuff. But only a Prime Minister can cut through with a yes or no when there's deadlock.

Normally, choices can be put off. After all, Theresa May spent years in Number 10 not deciding things. But now the urgent choices are piling in. The answers will save, or cost, lives and shape our country and its economy for a generation. Someone needs to be on top of them. Now.

How soon can parts of lockdown be eased? How long can the economy survive this without collapsing? And, if lockdown goes on, will the jobs scheme be extended, or will millions of people become unemployed?

Who chooses between different medical and scientific advice? Should Brexit talks be delayed? Should more prisoners be released? Which businesses must be bailed out?

Priti Patel

Different ministers have different views - that's not selfish rivalry, it's precisely their job. The Treasury wants to rescue the economy. The Health Department wants to keep the NHS from being overwhelmed. Both matter immensely. Doing both at once might not be possible.

So, without a Prime Minister in action, who gets to make those choices? Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has been named by Johnson as his stand-in and that's accepted by his colleagues - for now.

But that's not the same as saying he is being treated as a PM or has the constitutional power. Nor, if it came to that choice, could he be sure of becoming one. Yesterday he looked stunned by his responsibility and said power was shared between ministers, not held by him.

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Dominic Raab

Dominic Raab

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Dominic Raab

That's why the third thing people say is more unexpected: "We need to work together, no one looks good by playing games right now, we've got to do the best we can together."

We are so used to seeing politics as a team of rivals that it's hard to accept that maybe those in charge do actually just want to sort things out. But they do.

This is obviously not just a game, it is horribly serious and as difficult for those who find themselves in government as it is for everyone else in the country.

But the problem is that even if they go on meaning this to be true, soon someone is going to have to make some big, nasty choices and it will be impossible for everyone to agree.

What makes it all the tougher is that the usual support mechanisms of politics and government which help things carry on when there's trouble, aren't there. Parliament isn't sitting, for a start. Some MPs are self-isolating. Some are ill. The Cabinet is dispersed.

Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, has sent the civil service to work from home, too. Only a few officials are working face to face, which is understandable, but it has put a deep strain on a system which can usually support governments through difficult times.

Key officials in Number 10 carry a bigger burden than ever: people like Sedwill or the Treasury official Stuart Glassborow, whose title of deputy principal private secretary hides his real importance. When no one else can make choices, it will fall to people like them.

But they need to work with the authority of politicians and their special advisers. That's hard when it's not clear where power lies - or even who is working where.

This isn't a disaster in every way. Capable Cabinet ministers are focusing on the things their departments can do to get through this and don't need a PM in place to do that. For a lot of them, that involves planning the recovery.

How do you get schools open, airports operating or trains running normally again? Lots of online meetings are taking place to make sure good plans are ready when the time comes.

There's opportunity for fresh thinking, too. Just as in the darkest days of the Second World War, some planned ahead - it is when we dreamed up the welfare state and our system of National Parks - so reforms might become possible which otherwise could never have happened.

With fewer officials to deal with and no bullying from the centre of government, some Cabinet ministers are pushing on with long-term policy in a way that they would not normally dare to do.

Normally, the centre would hold most of the power, especially in a government where the Prime Minister has just won a huge majority and advisers such as Dominic Cummings flaunted their control over other departments. Now all that has gone silent - at least for a time. Something needs to fill the void.

There's political chatter, of course. If Johnson could not return, would a Cabinet team headed by Raab be able to steer to the other side of the crisis? He'd work with Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, now also self-isolating, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor who has proved himself one of the reassuring stars of the situation.

The crisis is stress-testing politicians in extreme circumstances.

It's become clear who is able to cope. Others have vanished: we've heard nothing from the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, although she holds a post that is in theory at the centre of running the country in a national emergency.

The problem is that trying to run things as a team can never work for long. Someone needs to be in charge. It's why the post of Prime Minister emerged, when Sir Robert Walpole became the first man to take charge from Number 10, three centuries ago. It's why we need one now.

But holding a leadership contest in the middle of coronavirus is unimaginable. Even those at the centre of it all are hoping it doesn't come to that.

Those wishes for Johnson's fast recovery are real: but even back at his job and restored to health, the pressures of carrying the country through coronavirus could overwhelm anyone.

© Evening Standard

Belfast Telegraph