Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. In a recorded video message, Johnson said he had developed “mild symptoms” and is now in self-isolation. Here are the main issues at play for the UK in this time of crisis.
Will Boris Johnson continue as prime minister?
Johnson has made it clear that he will continue to oversee the government’s response to the pandemic, which had taken a severe turn for the worse as he was receiving his diagnosis. He said in his statement:
Be in no doubt that I can continue thanks to the wizardry of modern technology to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fight-back against coronavirus.
Assuming his mild symptoms do not worsen, the practical and political consequences of Johnson’s self-isolation should be limited. He will still be able to communicate with ministers and advisers via video link. He will also still be able to record statements for the public. Up until this point, he had been delivering almost daily press conferences but the most recent have been via videolink with journalists rather than in-person meetings.
One of the reasons why his self-isolation should have limited consequences is that a great deal of communication is already being done remotely. Johnson and his minsters have had to adapt their working habits in line with the way almost everyone else in Britain has had to.
Parliament, for example, has shut down for at least a month in response to the pandemic. MPs, who had earlier passed emergency legislation giving special powers to the government and releasing funds to combat the pandemic, must now learn to do their constituency work online. They may also have to learn to do their legislative work remotely if it is considered too risky to reconvene the House of Commons.
Can a prime minister really run a country remotely?
The way British government is organised means that a prime minister can work from home like this without everything falling to pieces. Although the prime minister provides general political and policy leadership, supreme executive authority rests with the cabinet. The development and delivery of most government policy, meanwhile, is undertaken by departments and ministers.
The prime minister has a crucial role to play in coordinating and communicating the government’s overall response to the pandemic but other ministers also have crucial roles. The chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is leading on the economic and financial responses to the pandemic. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who has also tested positive for COVID-19, heads up the department of health. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, is leading on contingency planning around the use of the armed forces and reservists.
All ministers, in other words, have jobs to do, and all will be getting on with those jobs. The same goes for the civil servants and advisers who make the government machine operate. Downing Street can provide a steer but others will continue to do the running.
It is an unhappy coincidence that Hancock has tested positive for COVID-19. But he too appears to have mild symptoms and will continue to keep in touch with his officials. There is no reason to assume that he won’t be able to make any key decisions that require his attention.
Who takes over if a prime minister is incapacitated?
Even though, business can continue largely as usual, ministers and officials will be hoping that Johnson’s symptoms remain mild, not least because there is no one else who can provide the leadership that comes from the top.
The British cabinet is not a collection of equals but it also contains no obvious “big beast” with the political stature and personal authority to step in should the prime minister’s symptoms deteriorate.
There is, however, a designated stand in for the prime minister should it be required – Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, holds the additional title of first secretary of state. Johnson has made it clear that Raab will assume his responsibilities if necessary.
Raab’s title elevates him above other ministers but he does not enjoy the title of deputy prime minister. The last person to hold that position was Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the junior partner with David Cameron in the 2010-2015 coalition government. Johnson wanted to elevate Raab within his government but not so high as to be a credible rival. A prime minister is free to decide whether to have a deputy or not.
There are otherwise no laws or constitutional provisions as to what should happen if a prime minister is put out of action. The Cabinet Manual, a document which brings together the most important rules underpinning the operation and conduct of British government, makes no explicit reference to prime ministerial incapacitation.
The prime minister can nominate a short-term stand in but this person would need the support of other cabinet ministers to continue on an ongoing basis. If there were an outright vacancy in the premiership, it would be up to the governing party to choose a new leader, who would then become prime minister. The prime minister cannot designate a permanent successor.
What role does the Queen play?
The Queen’s role in all of this is, of course, strictly limited. She is obliged to take the advice of her ministers. She will not personally choose a new prime minister if one is needed.
Given her age, there is wider concern about the monarch’s potential vulnerability to the coronavirus. Prince Charles has tested positive but he is isolating at his residence in Scotland. It is not clear if the prime minster will continue to enjoy weekly audiences with the Queen via video link.
For the time being then, Britain’s government will continue as normal – or as normal as things can be amid the pandemic.