Who is running the country? It’s certainly not Boris Johnson. Though his condition is said to have stabilised, thank God, he’s plainly in no position to undertake any duties while in intensive care.
But is Dominic Raab, chosen by Mr Johnson as his deputy, in charge of the clattering train? Not obviously. Although he chairs the Government Covid-19 morning meetings, he hasn’t been given full prime ministerial powers.
Moreover, the Foreign Secretary doesn’t seem very anxious to push himself forward in his new role. There was an air of diffidence about him at the daily press conference on Tuesday afternoon, when he spoke movingly about the bedridden, sick PM, and expressed confidence that he would recover.
It’s easy to appreciate why Mr Raab should be hanging back. The last thing in the world he wants to be accused of is trying to fit the crown on his head while its true owner is fighting for his life in hospital.
Although he chairs the Government Covid-19 morning meetings, he hasn’t been given full prime ministerial powers
Neither Mr Raab’s hesitancy, nor the understandable scepticism of colleagues, would matter very much if Boris Johnson were to leap out of his hospital bed in a week or two, and immediately resume his position on the bridge
I am also sure that he is aware of being surrounded by Cabinet ministers who wonder why such a relatively inexperienced person should have been asked to substitute for Boris when they have superior claims.
Michael Gove can boast a distinguished, varied and long career as a senior minister in three administrations. He is a much more able communicator than the rather wooden Dominic Raab, and no less clever.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has a very high opinion of himself that is mostly justified, may be not much more experienced than Mr Raab, but he comes across more engagingly. He would not be human if he didn’t regard the Foreign Secretary’s temporary leadership position with suspicion.
Michael Gove can boast a distinguished, varied and long career as a senior minister in three administrations
Neither Mr Raab’s hesitancy, nor the understandable scepticism of colleagues, would matter very much if Boris Johnson were to leap out of his hospital bed in a week or two, and immediately resume his position on the bridge.
In that event, his stand-in would not have been required to make any major decisions. He would have simply applied a little oil to the machinery of government, and made sure that everything was kept in good working order pending Mr Johnson’s swift return.
Alas, it is most unlikely that he will bound back so soon. The consensus among doctors is that he will be lucky to be at his best for several weeks. It could even be months before he is firing again on all cylinders.
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, says that he would expect someone who survives the ordeal of intensive care ‘to need at least a month, or possibly two, to be sufficiently back and to be able to function’.
Regrettable though it is, we should accept that Boris will probably be absent for a while. It follows that we will need more than a faltering, halfway house Prime Minister to hold the fort in the meantime.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has a very high opinion of himself that is mostly justified, may be not much more experienced than Mr Raab, but he comes across more engagingly
Some claim that the great engine of government turns over in all weathers. They point out that in 1953 Prime Minister Winston Churchill was incapacitated for many weeks after a stroke — the public weren’t informed — without any discernible damage being done.
But in 1953 the country wasn’t mired in a crisis. There was no prospect of economic annihilation. It didn’t really matter that Churchill’s mind wasn’t on the job, or that his heir apparent, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, was abroad having a serious operation.
In the normal run of things, we can dispense with prime ministers and foreign secretaries and all manner of important sounding people for weeks, and life goes on perfectly happily. These, though, are abnormal times.
Huge decisions must be made in the coming weeks, the most important being how long to maintain the lockdown, which is confining us in our homes under virtual house arrest, and inexorably bleeding the economy to death.
Mr Raab and colleagues seem to have reached the conclusion — rightly I think, even though they don’t appear to have spent much thought on the matter — that the lockdown should be renewed next Monday, when it will have lasted three weeks.
What happens, though, if after another three weeks Mr Johnson is still not back in action? In that event, someone will have to arrive at what will be a finely-balanced decision. Such a person can only be Mr Raab, assisted by his Cabinet colleagues.
There are all manner of other challenges which won’t be met without constant nagging, and the occasional explosion of irritation, at the top of government. Again, it’s hard to see who can do this other than Dominic Raab.
Huge decisions must be made in the coming weeks, the most important being how long to maintain the lockdown, which is confining us in our homes under virtual house arrest, and inexorably bleeding the economy to death
I’m afraid I harbour doubts as to whether Matt Hancock’s goal of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month will be achieved. If Mr Johnson were around, I would hope he would reprove the Health Secretary for failing to reach his much trumpeted, self-imposed target.
Equally, if the PM were in No 10, I’d expect him to be rattling every cage in Public Health England to ensure that a workable antibody test — that’s the one which shows whether you have had the disease — is produced at a much earlier date than the unspecified number of months now mentioned.
But Boris is unlikely to be around to do this, and in his absence someone is needed who can take an overview. Someone who, if necessary, will bang heads together, and instruct warring ministers to behave themselves. That can only be Dominic Raab.
This oddly reluctant stand-in must throw himself into the breach. He needs to set aside his fear of being accused of assuming too much power. He must ignore the cavils of envious colleagues — and, when appropriate, tell them what to do.
And he should sustain himself over the next few weeks with the thought that he has been chosen for this job by Boris. He has been trusted by the Prime Minister in preference to other senior ministers. My bet is that the public is ready to trust him too — if he shows he is eager to embrace the task.
There is one more consideration, which I don’t like to think about. If, God forbid, Boris does not battle through, Mr Raab could be running the country for longer than I have envisaged.
If, God forbid, Boris does not battle through, Mr Raab could be running the country for longer than I have envisaged
In such a dreadful eventuality, members of the Cabinet would have to come to an agreement as to whether he or someone else was the best interim Prime Minister, and the Queen would in all likelihood summon that person. It might well be Dominic Raab.
Eventually, of course, there would have to be a Tory leadership contest, but that couldn’t conceivably take place while the country still stood on the brink of catastrophe.
Let’s pray that doesn’t happen, and that the Prime Minister pulls through. It is futile to make predictions. Yet I can’t help feeling that if anyone can overcome the ravages of this dreadful disease, it’s Boris.
If he survives, we must still face the reality that this country won’t get through the next few arduous weeks without a proper leader. As that leader can’t be a bed-bound or recuperating Boris Johnson, it will have to be Dominic Raab.