Boris Johnson vs. the Coronavirus

First Secretary of State Dominic Raab of Britain. Credit Stefan Rousseau/Press Association, via Associated Press.
First Secretary of State Dominic Raab of Britain. Credit Stefan Rousseau/Press Association, via Associated Press.

Boris Johnson’s war with the coronavirus has turned personal. When the prime minister was admitted to intensive care with severe symptoms on Monday night, it was a reminder to Britons that like it or not, we are all in this together.

The virus that has changed daily life across the world knows no bounds when it comes to privilege, class or high office. A leader who has repeatedly defied the laws of political gravity finds himself struck down by the very virus he had put his government on a war footing to beat.

Mr. Johnson’s hospital stay comes after a week of damaging headlines over his government’s handling of the outbreak and rumors of his declining health. Keen to dispel claims made earlier this year that he was a “part-time” prime minister, Mr. Johnson had insisted on continuing to work despite his symptoms, which included a persistent fever. Those around him now regret that decision.

Although Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party has enjoyed its best poll ratings in government since Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, there has been criticism of the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic — from his visible reluctance to impose social-distancing measures to his at times jovial approach to news conferences.

But as Mr. Johnson’s hospital admission brings the national crisis to a head, such criticism has been drowned out by support. Politicians, commentators and celebrities across the spectrum have put partisanship aside to rally around the beleaguered prime minister. Social media is flooded with well wishes; there’s a campaign for a moment of national applause — a community act reserved until now for hospital staffs and other key workers putting their safety on the line to fight the pandemic.

So the political dynamics seem to have changed, at least for now. But the challenge ahead for the government has only increased in scale.

Aides have gone from talking down the severity of the prime minister’s illness to worrying out loud over what it means for the days, weeks and months ahead. Even if Mr. Johnson makes a fast recovery, he will need time out to convalesce. At a time of national crisis, the figure supposed to lead the country is out of action.

Mr. Johnson’s temporary replacement is his de facto deputy, First Secretary of State Dominic Raab. Mr. Raab was given the title when Mr. Johnson became prime minister and believed the biggest challenge of the day was Brexit. The idea was that the appointment of Mr. Raab, a committed Brexiteer, would send a clear message that even if something happened to the prime minister, his Brexit plan could not be watered down.

Mr. Raab’s suitability for leading the country through a time of national crisis is another matter. While the prime minister and his team trust him more than Mr. Johnson does most senior cabinet ministers, Mr. Raab is a relative unknown to the public and is seen to lack warmth as a speaker.

But even if Mr. Raab defies his critics, there are limits to how much a high-performing de facto deputy can achieve. The British system is not built for a situation in which its leader is absent for a prolonged period of time — let alone during a national crisis. There are not clear guidelines for who takes power if the prime minister is incapacitated. And Mr. Raab is not carrying out all of Mr. Johnson’s duties: He is not working from 10 Downing Street, he will not meet with the queen, and he does not have the power to fire or hire members of the cabinet.

Since Mr. Johnson became prime minister, power has been broadly balanced among the four ministers tasked with heading the coronavirus subcommittees: Mr. Raab, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. There have been repeated reports of egos clashing behind the scenes over who leads the public response, competing briefs and turf wars. Now they must put their differences aside and find a way to work their competing interests into a joint plan.

The government has been reluctant to even discuss what an exit strategy from the lockdown might look like, on the grounds that it could lead people to relax social distancing. In truth, it’s also because there are rival views in government on what should happen: Some ministers think the lockdown must be eased in the coming weeks to salvage the economy, while others see that as a damaging gamble on people’s lives.

But this is the kind of decision that should rest only with an elected prime minister. Those sending Mr. Johnson well wishes are doing so not only for his own well-being but also for the sake of the country. The best hope is that he makes as speedy a recovery as possible.

Mr. Raab used Tuesday’s government news conference to tell the public that he believes Mr. Johnson “will be back at the helm leading us through the crisis in short order.” But if that is not possible, serious thinking needs to be done on how major policy decisions should be made and by whom. The current arrangement is not suited to a prolonged absence of the prime minister.

Katy Balls is the deputy political editor of The Spectator.

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