With Johnson in hospital, public will not look kindly on game-playing and jockeying for position by ministers - GulfToday

With Johnson in hospital, public will not look kindly on game-playing and jockeying for position by ministers

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Boris Johnson. File

Andrew Grice, The Independent

Can the government cope without Boris Johnson while he remains seriously ill? It will not be easy. The machine will miss his drive and energy at such a critical moment. The public will miss his bouncy optimism.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, is not acting prime minister. As first secretary of state, he is deputising for Johnson “where necessary”. But confusion over his role, and claims of a power vacuum, strengthen the case for having a formal deputy prime minister.

Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s historian, argues that “no incumbent of No 10 would favour” a clear plan for replacing them in an emergency. That’s politics. Yet the chain of command would be clearer under a deputy prime minister, who would enjoy greater authority.

Raab points to collective cabinet responsibility, recognising he must take his fellow ministers with him. But this rule is about ministers toeing the cabinet line in public if they lose the argument in private. The prime minister, or their stand-in, plays a crucial role in summing up cabinet debates; their own view can be critical if ministers are divided.

Raab, who is little known to the public, is a surprise choice. His campaign to win the Tory leadership last year did not take off. But Johnson’s allies say the fellow Vote Leave campaigner won the prime minister’s trust after backing Johnson when he was eliminated. That is another way of saying that when he formed his government last July, Johnson did not entirely trust the obvious candidate to be his unofficial deputy: Michael Gove, who abandoned him in the 2016 leadership election to run himself.

Some in Whitehall suspect that Johnson chose a first secretary of state who would not outshine him. Raab is not universally popular with fellow ministers or civil servants. He is seen as abrasive and lacking empathy; officials call him “Demonic Raab” behind his back. To be fair, Raab showed a necessary human touch at last night’s Downing Street press conference, when he said that Johnson was not just ministers’ “boss” but also their “colleague” and “friend”.

Officially, the cabinet will get on with the job of implementing decisions Johnson has already taken. While the review of the lockdown he promised next Monday will be put off, this is only a holding position.

Of course, we must all hope that Johnson makes a full recovery, but he will need the proper rest he surely denied himself last week after contracting coronavirus. Although he will want to be consulted on big decisions, that might not be possible. Within days, the lockdown will have to be extended, probably for another few weeks.

The real crunch will come over the exit strategy. Whitehall departments are drawing up plans for how this might work. The Treasury is understandably worried that a prolonged shutdown will inflict deep damage on the economy, with consequences for the nation’s health – including mental health problems, and a bigger hole in the public finances making it harder to pump more money into the NHS. Many businesses need certainty; without some light at the end of the tunnel, more might close or make redundancies. The government may have to take a stake in some key companies to keep them afloat.

Tensions between cabinet ministers over the exit strategy have started to surface in public. There has been sniping between allies of Gove, who is in charge of “public services implementation” and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, whose target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month is viewed with scepticism by some ministers. Raab might struggle to contain such tensions. But if he oversteps the mark, ministers might bite back, which would be bound to leak out, calling the government’s competence into question.

Ministers should stop jostling for position and end their blame game in which mistakes are laid at the door of Public Health England, NHS England or civil servants, who suspect politicians are covering their backs ahead of the inevitable inquiry into the government’s preparations for and response to the crisis.

The public will not look kindly on the game-playing and jockeying for position we have seen so far. The already daunting challenge for ministers has got even bigger with Johnson out of the picture. For the country’s sake, the cabinet needs to raise its game.

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