Simon Usherwood is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey, U.K.
If you were ever going to have your head of government out of action, almost certainly you would not pick a time like this. A world in crisis, a pandemic threatening to swamp your health-care system, a public looking for leadership and calm reassurance.
It’s the stuff of lurid Hollywood blockbusters, or the opener to a cheap holiday read picked up in the departures lounge, not actually what is supposed to happen.
And yet, here we are. The Prime Minister of a G7 state, hospitalized and in intensive care with the very virus that is causing us all so much anguish and disruption, focused (rightly) on getting himself through his infection and not on running the country.
Of course, there is a certain bathos to Boris Johnson finding himself laid low by this, the sideways blow that he did not see coming after a lifetime of hankering and grafting to get into Number 10 and all the time and effort spent fighting for Brexit.
But bathos is not the concern right now. Bigger questions loom, not least of which is that of who is actually in charge? Here we come back, as so often, to the joys of the British constitution. And yes, there is one, it’s just that no one quite got round to putting it all in one place.
The post of prime minister itself is a classic example of Stuff Just Happening Over Time. It has no basis in law, having emerged as a practice in government cabinets a couple of centuries ago. Just about the most authoritative work on the PM’s office and powers is a handbook produced by the Cabinet Office itself. To a considerable degree, what the PM is and can do is decided by the office-holder themselves and those around them.
What is clear is that there is only the prime minister; there is no option of an acting or temporary PM. In short, you are prime minister until you resign or you die. You can farm out the work to others if you like, but you still remain the person nominally in charge.
That system has worked well enough for a long time. PMs of yore (and not-so-yore, for that matter) have taken time off for holidays or planned medical treatments, and the show has gone on. Someone is told to chair meetings in their stead, avoid controversy and generally hope nothing bad happens on their watch.
To that extent, the current situation is not that different. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, had already been marked as the stand-in should Mr. Johnson fall ill – and he has indeed picked up the chairing of meetings in recent days, not to mention fronting the media campaign of reassurance.
The difference lies in the uncertainty about Mr. Johnson’s developing health issues. Even though the initial reports from hospital have been positive about the lack of severity of symptoms, they arrive hard on the heels of Number 10 insisting that all was well – right up until a few hours before Mr. Johnson’s hospital admission. How long he might be in hospital, or whether his condition might further deteriorate, is simply not known. Being prime minister confers no immunity.
This all said, for now the situation is not that problematic.
Most obviously, no immediate major decisions need to be made. The U.K. is in lockdown, and any extension of that will be driven by medical and scientific advice, not party political calculation. Indeed, there are no party politics right now, just as the international community is also totally preoccupied with the same thing. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking now would be a good time to rock the boat with military action or trade wars (other than the ones they’re already fighting, obviously).
At a time when public policy is so evidently created and shaped by experts rather than politicians, there is little for any leader to do beyond motivating the public and encouraging compliance with the new rules we all face. And even then, such messages might be more effective coming from those beyond the political scene.
If that is the benign side of Mr. Raab finding himself with a lot more work, then he has to take care to remember that it is not a stable situation.
At some point, the lockdown will have to move to be wound down, a gradual and complicated process with lots of scope for problematic expression on the ground and the ever-present danger of having to reintroduce measures. That will be a hard job for any leader, let alone one who is just supposed to be keeping the chair warm.
The high levels of social compliance that currently exist might not continue indefinitely, as people tire of being stuck at home and of media stories of others breaking the rules. Can a stand-in stem that problem when he might be more preoccupied with getting colleagues to keep a unified front?
All of this highlights the most basic and fervent desire of Mr. Raab and the Cabinet as a whole: that Mr. Johnson’s illness is brief and passing and that everyone can cross off one problem – a seriously ill Prime Minister – from the long list that confronts them.
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