Boris Johnson, the larger-than-life British prime minister, was admitted to the intensive care unit of St Thomas’ Hospital in Westminster on 6 April after suffering serious Coronavirus symptoms. For a British prime minister to be incapacitated in this way is almost unprecedented and poses questions about how Britain is governed when its prime minister cannot execute their duties.
Occasions where a prime minister is incapacitated, especially in modern times, are rare. Two such instances in the last century involve both of Britain’s great wartime prime ministers. David Lloyd George caught the Spanish Flu in 1918 which left him out of action for two weeks, just months before WWI ended. The public knew little of this and he continued in his role. Churchill suffered a stroke in 1953. He would have been expected to hand some responsibility to his foreign secretary Anthony Eden, except that Eden himself was already ill in hospital in New York at the time. Churchill, adhering to his classic British wartime hero stereotype, ‘kept calm and carried on’. He managed to hold a cabinet meeting the day after his stroke without anybody noticing and the public were also kept uninformed. He made an unexpected recovery before retiring.
There is very little precedent to guide the situation that the UK government finds itself in, desperately needing strong leadership, with its prime minister Boris Johnson in intensive care.
Like most aspects of the British constitution, there is no written guidebook for this situation. Although Boris Johnson formally designated Dominic Raab as First Secretary of State and to deputise for him ‘where necessary’, this has not stopped the media questioning (and rightfully so) this vague statement and what powers Mr Raab actually has. Does he have the power to hire and fire ministers? Can he extend the Coronavirus lock down? And, most importantly in my opinion, will he receive and be able to act on urgent national security advice, especially when the country is in such a vulnerable position? Whilst Boris is not at the helm, Raab has said that the government will make decisions as usual, through cabinet collective responsibility. Yet, the cabinet may not always agree and in that case a decision-maker would be needed. Throughout history, many British prime ministers have not appointed either a Deputy Prime Minister or First Secretary, leaving it unclear what the process would have been if the prime minister could not fulfil their role.
The case for a written constitution has long been debated and could provide a way to clarify exactly who would lead the government in the case of an incapacitated prime minister and detail what powers they would have. However, a written constitution and written rules can lead to even more problems if the prime minister has not chosen their de facto deputy carefully, as Lord Lexden explained in The Times this week. Lexden argues that if some deputy prime ministers of history had been called upon to fulfil a constitutional duty to deputise for the prime minister, that governments could have fallen apart due to a lack of leadership qualities or personal views at odds with a section of the party. With the current unwritten system, the right leader can be chosen for the right circumstance.
What’s the solution?
I think there is a compromise to be had where some guidelines are written, to give the public confidence that there is a set procedure when it comes to national security, but that gives the flexibility that the British system is so famed for. The written guidelines would also enable the Deputy Prime Minister to have confidence in their role, as arguably Dominic Raab has not shown thus far.
One set of ideas worth urgent attention are that the roles of Deputy Prime Minister and Acting Prime Minister be codified in the Cabinet Manual, in agreement with the cabinet secretary, the Queen’s private secretary, the leader of the opposition and constitutional experts. All prime ministers must appoint a deputy, unlike most prime ministers in history who have not designated a specific deputy. There should be a written order of precedence of cabinet ministers in case the deputy prime minister is unable to fulfil their role (as happened with Churchill in 1953, when his de facto deputy Anthony Eden was in hospital). The prime minister should be able to modify this if they wish.
The role of Deputy Prime Minister would come into effect if the prime minister became incapacitated and would have limited powers including the ability to call and chair cabinet meetings, receive national security briefings and be informed of the nuclear codes. They should only make executive decisions if a majority of the cabinet agrees. The Deputy Prime Minister should not be able to: hire and fire ministers or senior civil servants; advise the Queen to dissolve parliament unless the government loses the confidence of the House of Commons or be able to take military action without unanimous cabinet consent. The Deputy Prime Minister should also receive audiences with the Queen, whose role in the constitution is to advise, encourage and warn the prime minister. If the prime minister was still incapacitated after two months and the medical advice was that they would remain so indefinitely, or the prime minister died, then a party leadership election should be called. Again, these guidelines would be included in the Cabinet Manual.
The Coronavirus outbreak is shining a light on the most complex aspects of the British unwritten constitution, prompting questions about the running of the government that must be confronted so that we are ready for a similar case in the future. For now, let’s focus on praying that Boris returns to Downing Street soon and get behind Dominic Raab as he takes on a lonely and unprecedented role in the most difficult of times.