Who will run British gov’t while Johnson is away?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister's Questions, in London, Britain on March 4, 2020. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua)
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LONDON, /Xinhua/

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson spending his fourth day in intensive care after his condition deteriorated from contracting the coronavirus, questions remain as to who will run Britain as the country ponders a COVID-19 lockdown.

Johnson tasked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to deputize for him during his absence, but political commentators have been quick to ask how the chain of command will operate if difficult decisions need to be taken without the prime minister in the driving seat.

The first big test for Raab and senior ministers will come next Monday, the day Johnson said he would review the national lock-down he imposed last month.

The Daily Telegraph said Raab is likely to come under increased pressure to review the coronavirus lockdown on Monday as planned.

When Johnson put the country into lockdown, he said he would review his decision after three weeks, and relax the instructions if the evidence shows that would be possible.

Raab has insisted that the team of Johnson’s senior government ministers operate on a system of cabinet collective responsibility, but constitutional experts point out that some duties can only be carried out by the prime minister.

Raab’s authority to sanction military action is one question raised by outside observers.

Politician Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the House of Commons Defense Select Committee, said: “It is important to have 100 percent clarity as to where responsibility for security decisions lies. We must anticipate adversaries attempting to exploit any perceived weakness.”

Raab said at a press briefing this week: “I’ve been given a clear steer from the PM, very clear instructions in terms of dealing with coronavirus.”

Dr. Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the think-tank Institute for Government, said some powers could be distributed to several Cabinet ministers when the occupant of 10 Downing Street is incapacitated.

Academic and political expert Professor Iain Begg from the London School of Economics told Xinhua: “If Johnson is unable to decide, and there is division over a crucial strategic choice, it does create a problem. But a key advantage of the relative informality of UK governance structures is that ways can generally be found to adapt.”

“I very much doubt Raab alone would be empowered to take a key decision, but the strength of collective decision-making lies not just in finding ways of making the decision, but also binding the participants into supporting it, even if they were against it.”

There might subsequently be leaks aimed at assigning blame or claiming credit, but decisions will be taken, added Begg.

Begg said one of Britain’s best-known leaders, World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was twice incapacitated while in office as PM (once during the darker days of WWII) without significant derailment of government.

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