United Kingdom

Coronavirus UK: Fears of 'power vacuum' as Boris Johnson ill

Dominic Raab arrives at Downing Street this morning

Downing Street scrambled to ease fears over a power vacuum at the heart of government today with Boris Johnson in intensive care battling coronavirus.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been officially 'deputised' by the PM to fill in while he tries to recover from the potentially deadly disease. 

However, there are doubts about how long Whitehall can function without an active PM, especially with claims of tensions between ministers. 

Mr Johnson has not resigned and so continues to be the formal leader of the government, but doctors have warned he faces a long recovery process. 

Cabinet minister Michael Gove played down concerns about paralysis this morning, saying Mr Raab was 'in charge', while added: 'The Cabinet is the supreme decision making body.'

Mr Raab will not be able to hire and fire colleagues. But asked who will be in control of the nuclear deterrent and armed forces, the PM's spokesman said: 'In relation to national security matters the First Secretary of State and the Cabinet have the authority and the ability to respond in the Prime Minister's absence.'    

New PMs usually write 'letters of last resort' to nuclear submarine captains, setting out instructions if government is wiped out by an enemy strike. 

But No10 said Mr Johnson's existing letters will continue to apply, rather than Mr Raab writing new ones. 

MPs have raised alarm that hostile states such as Russia - which has already been accused of spreading disinformation about Mr Johnson's condition - could try to exploit Britain's 'weakness'. 

General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, said the armed forces 'work straight through to the Prime Minister', although he suggested the National Security Council (NSC) will now fill the gap. 

The Queen is being kept informed about Mr Johnson's condition, but she will not grant audiences to Mr Raab while he is standing in for the premier. The monarch appoints the PM, choosing the individual who is best placed to carry a majority in the Commons.

The UK does not have a written constitution and the chain of command is largely based on convention. 

Since the end of the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition in 2015 there has not been a deputy PM.   

Instead Mr Cameron, Theresa May and now Mr Johnson appointed First Secretaries of State to denote who was second in line.  

Downing Street is said to have drawn up plans to ensure the continuation of government in all circumstances but details have not been divulged publicly.  

The Prime Minister (pictured on Thursday evening), who was admitted to St Thomas' Hospital in London last night, was taken to intensive care at 7pm this evening

New Prime Ministers usually write 'letters of last resort' to nuclear submarine captains, setting out instructions if government is wiped out by an enemy strike. However, it is not clear whether Mr Johnson's letters will still apply, or Mr Raab will pen new versions. Pictured is HMS Vanguard, one of the submarines that carry the UK deterrent

Mr Raab raised concerns as he was seen coughing leaving the Foreign Office to go to Downing Street this morning

Mr Gove revealed today that he has gone into self-isolation after a family member started showing coronavirus symptoms

Downing Street infection timeline 

March 10: Health minister Nadine Dorries became the first MP to test positive for coronavirus, shortly after attending a Downing Street reception.

March 27: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both release Twitter videos saying they have coronavirus and are self-isolating.

Hours later, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty revealed he was self-isolating with symptoms.

March 30: The PM's top adviser Dominic Cummings was revealed to be self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms.

April 2: Matt Hancock returns to work after seven dies in isolation and making a recovery.

April 3: Boris Johnson releases a video from his Number 11 flat saying he is continuing to self-isolate as he is still suffering a temperature.

April 4: Carrie Symonds, the PM's pregnant fiancée reveals she has been self-isolating at her Camberwell flat.

April 5: The PM is taken to St Thomas' Hospital as a precaution. 

April 6: The PM is moved to intensive care after his condition spiralled.

It is not immediately clear what would happen if Mr Raab also became incapacitated, with the UK not having a formal system of succession like other countries, for example the US. 

There is a formal ranking of ministers by seniority, but the arrangements have not been tested in practice for decades. 

Mr Raab's status as the person waiting in the wings reportedly sparked furious rows within the government a fortnight ago, with other ministers adamant Mr Gove should be the one to take over.   

Number 10 is likely to face intense pressure in the coming days to set out exactly what would happen if Mr Johnson and other senior ministers can no longer work.

If Mr Johnson is forced to resign, the Cabinet would in the first instance choose a successor.

They would need to carry the support of the Conservative MPs and potentially the party members - although it seems unlikely anyone would force a full leadership contest at a time of massive national crisis. 

Asked about Mr Raab's authority and whether he would have the same power as the PM to hire and fire people in Cabinet, Mr Gove replied: 'The Prime Minister always remains the Prime Minister but I don't think there's any suggestion of anything other than a great team spirit in government as we all work together at this time.'

Mr Gove said he could not comment about national security matters when asked if responsibilities connected to nuclear attack had been passed on to Foreign Secretary Mr Raab. 

'Dominic is in charge. I won't go into the details of the different national security decisions and protocols that there are but there are appropriate ways in which decisions can be taken in order to keep this country safe,' he said,

'The ultimate decisions are always taken by politicians and in this case the PM has asked Dominic to deputise for him, so it's Dominic as Foreign Secretary who's in charge.'

He also said any decisions about the lockdown would be 'taken collectively following appropriate advice', dismissing the idea there would be a delay. 

He told Good Morning Britain: 'No it won't be delayed. It will be the case that we will take that decision collectively as a Cabinet.

'The person who will chair that Cabinet, the person who will make the final decision of course is, as I mentioned earlier, the Foreign Secretary.'  

On the issue of a national government he added: 'I don't think anyone is talking in those terms, no.'

Conservative MP and defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood underlined the concerns about the nuclear deterrent.

'It is important to have 100% clarity as to where responsibility for UK national security decisions now lies. We must anticipate adversaries attempting to exploit any perceived weakness,' he tweeted. 

General Sir Nick said all the thoughts and prayers of the armed forces are with the Prime Minister.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'We wish him well for a very, very speedy recovery.'

Asked if there is a clear chain of command for the armed forces in such a situation, Sir Nick replied: 'Yes, it's very clear I think. We work straight through to the Prime Minister but of course there's the National Security Council (NSC) that's wrapped around him and formed of many of the Cabinet ministers and supported by the National Security Adviser.

'I think on that basis we're pretty confident it's business as usual as far as the operations are concerned.'

Sir Nick said he believed Mr Raab would chair the NSC and be supported by others. 

But former Cabinet minister Lord Heseltine said there 'isn't a clarity' about what Mr Raab can do as deputy, noting: 'I was deputy prime minister but I was never prime minister, if you know what I mean.

'In other words, John Major was always in good health and in touch so the questions never really arose.

'There must come a time when a deputy is effectively prime minister, I don't think we've probably quite got to that now but the present urgency of the situation and the potential decisions that may need to be taken quickly does mean that Dominic Raab will have to use his discretion and know when to act.

How are ministers ranked? 

 1. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister

2. Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State

3. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer

4. Priti Patel, Home Secretary

5. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

6. Robert Buckland, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary

7. Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary

8. Matt Hancock, Health Secretary

9. Alok Sharma, Business Secretary

10. Liz Truss, International Trade Secretary

11. Therese Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary

12. Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary

13. George Eustice, Environment Secretary

14. Robert Jenrick, Communities Secretary

15. Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland Secretary

16. Alister Jack, Scotland Secretary

17. Simon Hart, Wales Secretary

18. Baroness Evans, Leader of the House of Lords

19. Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary

20. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, International Development Secretary

21. Amanda Milling, Minister without Portfolio (Conservative Party chairwoman)

'This is a very difficult thing to do because he will be surrounded by lots of people who know what Boris Johnson said, believe Boris will be quickly back and have their own personal agendas anyway, so it's a very difficult personal position and the man will be tested by the loneliness of the job.'

At the weekend it was revealed that two of the most senior Ministers leading the Government response to the coronavirus crisis are locked in battle over when to lift the economically devastating lockdown.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has made 'robust' representations to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, arguing that unless a path is mapped now for a swift return to normal economic activity it could cause lasting damage to the country.

Government critics of Mr Hancock argue his 'careerist' fear of being personally blamed for a collapse in the NHS is blinding him to the dangers of a protracted lockdown.

Mr Johnson was moved to ICU at St Thomas' Hospital in central London and given oxygen after his health deteriorated sharply over just two hours, leaving doctors fearing he will need a ventilator.

The 55-year-old was transferred to intensive care at 7pm because of breathing difficulties - forcing him to 'deputise' Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to take the reins of government.

In a round of broadcast interviews this morning, Cabinet minister Michael Gove said Mr Johnson was getting the 'best care'.

'As we speak the PM is in intensive care being looked after by his medical team receiving the very, very best care from the team in St Thomas's and our hopes and prayers are with him and with his family,' he told BBC Breakfast. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump revealed he has offered to send Mr Johnson experimental drugs to treat his coronavirus.

'I've asked two of the leading companies ... They've come with the solutions and just have done incredible jobs – and I've asked him to contact London immediately,' Mr Trump said. 'The London office has whatever they need. We'll see if we can be of help. We've contacted all of Boris's doctors, and we'll see what is going to take place, but they are ready to go.' 

The PM's sharp downturn came 11 days after he first suffered coronavirus symptoms and went into isolation. He looked increasingly unwell when glimpsed in public and in 'selfie' videos posted on on social media, and ministers were then shocked by his grim appearance at a Zoom conference on Sunday.

Downing Street sources confirmed Mr Johnson is not yet on a ventilator - but was moved to intensive care to be near one if needed. Some medical experts forecasting this course of action is now 'very likely'.

Two thirds of patients in intensive care with coronavirus are sedated and put on a ventilator within 24 hours of arriving as the illness attacks their lungs.

But last night one doctor told The Times Mr Johnson was conscious and had not been intubated - the process of putting a tube in the windpipe to aid breathing. He was said to have required around four litres of oxygen rather than the 15 litres used by an average Covid-19 ICU patient.

Only two hours before his move to intensive care, No10 was insisting Mr Johnson was still spearheading the government's coronavirus response, despite de facto deputy Mr Raab chairing the morning crisis meeting.

Dominic Raab, a karate black belt, is married without any children to Erika (together), a Brazilian-born marketing executive

Self-styled 'tough guy' with just one year's Cabinet experience: Ex-Foreign Office lawyer Dominic Raab is a relative new kid on the block - but is no stranger to controversy 

Dominic Raab is now the UK's de facto prime minister after Boris Johnson was hospitalised, with the running of the country placed in the hands of a man who has just one year of Cabinet experience. 

Mr Johnson has asked the Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State to deputise for him while he fights coronavirus in a London intensive care unit. 

The elevation of Mr Raab to the top political job in the country completes what has been a meteoric rise for the former Foreign Office lawyer, karate black belt and Oxford University boxing blue who is no stranger to controversy.      

Dominic Raab, pictured in Westminster today, is now the de facto prime minister after Boris Johnson was hospitalised with coronavirus

Mr Raab's bulging muscles and athletic frame leap out of a photo taken during his days as an Oxford University boxing blue in 1995

Westminster was stunned last July when Mr Johnson became Prime Minister and chose to select Mr Raab, a self-styled Tory 'tough guy', as his future stand-in. 

Many were expecting the 46-year-old to be rewarded with a big job after he backed the PM in the Tory leadership contest having seen his own bid fall flat. 

But few had anticipated Mr Raab being awarded one of the four great offices of state while even fewer predicted he would be designated Mr Johnson's deputy. 

However, the appointment made political sense for the new premier given Mr Raab's hardline Brexit credentials.

Mr Raab was one of the most vocal supporters of the UK leaving the EU and his appointment to the highest echelons of government reassured Eurosceptic Tory MPs that the PM was not going to go soft on Brussels after winning power. 

Becoming Foreign Secretary represented a massive step up for Mr Raab in terms of government responsibility having only held one Cabinet role prior to his major promotion. 

Mr Raab, first elected as the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton in 2010, had to wait five years before getting a proper ministerial job. 

And after slowly climbing the Whitehall ladder he finally broke into the Cabinet in July 2018 after receiving the call from Theresa May to be her new Brexit Secretary following the resignation of David Davis. 

However, he would only last until November of the same year as he also quit in protest at the then-PM's Brexit plans - just like his predecessor.  

Having entered the Tory leadership contest in late May 2019, he was quickly eliminated but swiftly announced he was supporting Mr Johnson's candidacy. 

He was then subsequently appointed Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State on July 24, 2019. 

That means that as of today, Mr Raab has just over one year of Cabinet experience under his belt - eight months in Mr Johnson's administration and five in Mrs May's. 

The designation of Mr Raab as Mr Johnson's deputy has not been without controversy with some ministers unhappy at the prospect of the Foreign Office chief being put in charge. 

Some members of the government had recently been pushing for Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, to be given the responsibility.     

Mr Raab, pictured with his wife Erika in June 2019 during his Tory leadership run, was first elected as an MP in 2010 

Mr Raab, pictured alongside Mr Johnson in the House of Commons in December last year, will now be tasked with overseeing the UK's coronavirus response

One minister said a few weeks ago that 'a lot of people think that Michael should be running the show' if Mr Johnson became incapacitated and that 'one of these people is Michael, of course'. 

But Downing Street has been clear for weeks that Mr Raab would take over if the situation demanded it.

Mr Raab has dealt with a number of political controversies since becoming an MP and later a Cabinet minister.  

Upon being appointed Foreign Secretary, Mr Raab was soon thrust into handling the Transatlantic fall-out over the death of British teenager Harry Dunn, who was killed when his motorbike crashed into a car outside RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire on August 27 last year.

The fact Mr Dunn's parents tried to heckle Mr Raab at a constituency hustings event was indicative of how well the family felt he dealt with obtaining justice for their son as the government tried and failed to persuade the US to extradite the teenager's alleged killer.

Mr Raab also had to manage the thorny issue of repatriating children of British jihadis.   

Early on in his parliamentary career Mr Raab sparked a furious row after he wrote an article in which he argued 'feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots'.

He said he stood by what he had said because he believed it is 'really important that in the debate on equality we have a consistency and not double standards and hypocrisy'.

Mr Raab, who is married to a Brazilian called Erika who he has two children with, has also said he is 'probably not' a feminist. 

He found himself again at the centre of a storm of controversy in May 2017 after claiming that people who use food banks are not typically in poverty but have an occasional 'cashflow problem'.

The Foreign Secretary first made it to the Cabinet in 2018 when he was appointed Brexit Secretary. He is pictured with Michel Barnier in Brussels in August of that year

Critics labelled the remarks 'stupid and deeply offensive'. 

He also got into hot water last year after he said he would keep open the option of suspending Parliament in order to prevent MPs blocking Brexit.

At the 2019 general election he was relentlessly targeted by the Liberal Democrats in his Surrey constituency and came relatively close to being ousted. 

He had previously held the seat with majorities of more than 20,000 votes but in December he held on with a majority of just under 3,000 as the Lib Dems surged, capitalising on the pro-Remain vote. 

Mr Raab has sought to create something of a 'hard man' image in Westminster, with his website boasting that he 'holds a black belt 3rd dan in karate and is a former UK Southern Regions champion and British squad member'. 

He captained the karate club at Oxford University where he studied law and was also a boxing blue. 

Mr Raab is clearly proud of his time as a university boxer, having previously handed a picture of him in his shorts and vest to a TV company to use for their profile of him. 

He still trains at a boxing club in Thames Ditton and has a poster of Muhammad Ali in his Commons office.

In 2006, he was appointed chief of staff to fellow Tory Mr Davis. The former Special Forces reservist said Mr Raab's karate black belt impressed him more than his two Oxbridge degrees -  the second came in a form of a Masters from Cambridge.   

Mr Raab said karate helped him cope with the premature death of his father, who had fled to the UK from Czechoslovakia at the age of six in 1938 to escape the Nazis. 

Mr Raab was just 12 when his father died. 'Sport helped restore my confidence, and that hugely benefited my attitude to school and life,' he said in May last year.

'There were strong role models, camaraderie and an ethos of respect. I take the discipline and focus I learnt from sport into my professional life – and I believe that approach is vital to making a success of the Brexit negotiations and delivering a fairer deal from Brussels.'

Despite his karate black belt, Mr Raab is known for his courtesy and was upset when civil servants who worked for him as Brexit Secretary anonymously described him as a bully.

Mr Raab, who previously worked at the Foreign Office as a lawyer, denied claims, made by his former diary secretary, that he insisted on the same Pret a Manger lunch every day.

The 'Dom Raab special' apparently consists of a chicken Caesar and bacon baguette, superfruit pot and a vitamin volcano smoothie.    

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