Dominic Raab took charge of Britain’s battle against coronavirus on Tuesday as acting Prime Minister – but was warned just to ‘hold on to the steering wheel’.
Mr Raab, who is First Secretary of State, was asked to deputise for Boris Johnson after he was moved into intensive care.
He has been handed a raft of powers, including the ability to take the UK to war.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Raab was repeatedly asked how disagreements between ministers would be resolved in the PM’s absence – but while he insisted the Cabinet would remain united, he did not say who had ultimate authority.
Foreign Secretary Mr Raab faced a string of questions about how much autonomy he had. He said of the Prime Minister: ‘He’s asked me to deputise for him for as long as is necessary, but the normal Cabinet collective responsibility and principles that inform that will apply.’
Dominic Raab took charge of Britain’s battle against coronavirus on Tuesday as acting Prime Minister, but there is still no clarity as to whether the collective cabinet make the calls
He added: ‘We’ve got very clear directions, very clear instructions from the Prime Minister, and we’re focused with total unity and total resolve on implementing them so that when he’s back, I hope in very short order, we will have made the progress that he would expect and that the country would expect.’
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said last night that his team was ‘very clear’ about what their jobs entailed. In reality, even though he is acting as Britain’s de facto leader, Mr Raab will not enjoy the same powers as the Prime Minister.
He will not be able to stamp his authority on the Cabinet by firing rival ministers, he will have to stick to Mr Johnson’s plan – and will not have a weekly audience with the Queen.
While Mr Raab insisted the Cabinet would remain united, he did not say who had ultimate authority to make the important calls
The Prime Minister’s spokesman confirmed that Mr Raab and the Cabinet would be able to take military action without the consent of Mr Johnson – and the Foreign Secretary would chair any meeting of the National Security Council.
The letters of last resort, written from Mr Johnson to the commanding officer of each of the country’s Trident nuclear submarines, remain in place. ‘The Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister,’ his spokesman stated.
Mr Raab’s responsibilities will include chairing a daily meeting of the Cabinet’s coronavirus war committee. The group, which also comprises Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, has faced rumours of tensions.
But sources close to the senior ministers last night warned no one would look favourably on any attempts to jostle for position. One Cabinet minister said: ‘Now is not the time for a power-play, we just need to pull together.
‘The PM has been clear about what should happen and put in place a caretaker. I don’t think there will be any challenge to that, not least because that is not what the country expects.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured on Thursday evening), who was admitted to St Thomas' Hospital in London, was taken to intensive care at 7pm on Monday evening
Another Cabinet minister said no one was in the mood to ‘ruffle feathers’ while the PM is ill. ‘We are all going to be impeccably behaved and get on with it. Dom has just got to hold on to the steering wheel,’ they added.
A Cabinet source described Mr Raab’s handling of the virus committee meeting as ‘business-like’. ‘He’s been on the C-19 meeting since the start so he is across all the detail,’ the source said.
‘There were a lot of issues to get through and he just worked through them with the others – it was business-like.’ Mr Raab was seen raising his hand to his mouth on Tuesday as he exited the Foreign Office to walk over to Downing Street.
Should he be taken ill, Mr Sunak would be next in line, Downing Street confirmed. Mr Gove, who himself went into self-isolation on Tuesday after a family member displayed symptoms, said ministers and officials were ‘working effectively together’ to carry out Mr Johnson’s plan.
He said a decision on extending the lockdown measures would not be delayed and would be taken collectively as a Cabinet.
‘The person who will chair that Cabinet, the person who will make the final decision of course is the Foreign Secretary,’ he said. Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: ‘The Government has a very clear plan for responding to the coronavirus pandemic that has been set out by the Prime Minister.
‘Everybody is very clear about what needs to be done and determined to get on with the work that the Prime Minister has asked them to do.’
Former Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday there was a ‘very good system’ in place. He added: ‘The Civil Service is a great machine, professional, impartial, good at preparing these decisions, and the right decision I’m sure will be taken.’