Opinion | Boris Johnson against coronavirus


Mr. Raab’s ability to lead the country in times of national crisis is another matter. Although the Prime Minister and his team trust him more than Mr. Johnson does to most cabinet officials, Mr. Raab is a relative unknown to the public and he seems to be lacking in warmth as a speaker.

But even if Mr. Raab defies his detractors, there are limits to what a high-performance de facto MP can achieve. The British system is not designed for a situation in which its leader is absent for an extended period – even less during a national crisis. There are no clear guidelines as to who takes power if the Prime Minister is incapacitated. And Mr. Raab does not perform all of Mr. Johnson’s duties: he does not work at 10 Downing Street, he will not meet with the Queen, and he has no power to fire or hire cabinet members.

Since Mr. Johnson became Prime Minister, power has been largely balanced between the four ministers responsible for chairing the coronavirus subcommittees: Mr. Raab, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Secretary of Health Matt Hancock and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. There have been repeated reports of ego colliding behind the scenes of who directs the public response, competing memories and territorial wars. Now they have to put their differences aside and find a way to integrate their competing interests into a joint plan.

The government is even hesitant to discuss what an exit from isolation strategy might look like, on the grounds that it could cause people to loosen social distance. In truth, it is also because the government has competing views on what should happen: some ministers believe that the lock-in must be eased in the coming weeks to save the economy, while others see it as a gamble damaging to people’s lives.

But this is the kind of decision that should only belong to an elected Prime Minister. Those who send greetings to Mr. Johnson do so not only for his own well-being but also for the good of the country. The best hope is that he will recover as quickly as possible.

Raab took advantage of the government’s press conference on Tuesday to tell the public that he believed Johnson’s “would be back at the helm to guide us through the crisis in a short time.” But if this is not possible, serious thought must be given to how the main political decisions should be taken and by whom. The current arrangement is not suited to a prolonged absence from the Prime Minister.

Katy Balls (@katyballs) is the deputy political editor of The Spectator.

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