This much I know: nobody emerging from intensive care resumes business as usual “in short order”, to use Dominic Raab’s phrase yesterday. In 2016, I was in an ICU for 10 days, laid low by sepsis, and — please believe me — your first task when you are transferred to a lower category of ward is not to go through your emails, but to remind your weakened body how to walk again. This has nothing to do with will or character. It is biology.
We all fervently hope that Boris Johnson will make a speedy recovery and return to work as soon as is consistent with his long-term health. The theatre of politics will doubtless require a picture of the Prime Minister in his hospital room with a red box.
But his doctors will certainly insist upon a proper convalescence, and Boris will be courting trouble if he does not heed them. It is in everyone’s interest that the PM be allowed to recuperate properly, and with respect for the realities of human physiology. And this has significant implications for the weeks and months ahead.
There are all sorts of reasons why Raab is less than ideal as Johnson’s understudy: principally, his personal diffidence and comparative lack of natural authority. But the Foreign Secretary is, explicitly and categorically, his boss’s nominee to deputise for him “where necessary”. For better or for worse, the public must now get used to the fact that he is the figurehead of the fight against Covid-19. To replace him before Boris returns to full vigour would confuse a nation already tested to the limit by this strange and frightening national emergency. It would be idle to pretend that this does not present formidable challenges, political and operational.
Much was made yesterday of “Cabinet collective responsibility” and its central role in our unwritten constitution. But this is to confuse a principle of pooled accountability with the practice of day-to-day government in the 21st century. Though the fiction continues to be maintained that the PM is “first among equals”, our system has been quasi-presidential since Margaret Thatcher. Ask yourself: did the electorate vote primarily for Boris in the December election, or for the top Tory team? Exactly.
At present, Whitehall is adjusting to this transition from vivid one-man leadership to what amounts to oligarchy-with-a-spokesman. That this is less than ideal scarcely needs to be pointed out. There are much bigger personalities round the table than Raab’s: one thinks immediately of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak; Health Secretary, Matt Hancock; and Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove (though he is currently self-isolating at home).
This would be difficult in normal circumstances. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, the pressures are truly immense. It is already clear, for instance, that the Government is very unlikely to relax its lockdown measures next week: the scientific advice provides no basis for such a step. But the regime of constraints — on private citizens and businesses alike — will have to be kept under constant review, and, at some stage, reconfigured. Such decisions cannot wait for the PM’s full recovery.
There is talk of a ‘team of rivals’ but what’s needed now is collaboration and restraint on an epic scale
The onus, therefore, is firmly upon the Cabinet to behave with maturity and a sense of posterity’s judgment. There is much talk in Whitehall about a “team of rivals” (a reference to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterpiece on Lincoln’s administration). And it is true that — like every senior group of politicians — this one is riven by tensions.
But the Cabinet minister who is caught out exploiting the PM’s incapacity in order to advance his or her self-interest will be severely judged, and rightly so. It was no accident that Johnson’s two predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron — both of whom have had grievances against him in the past — stepped up to the plate yesterday to encourage the smooth running of the system in his absence.
Even as the Government plans an exit strategy from lockdown, the PM’s colleagues must collaborate fully in his own exit strategy from critical care. That will require restraint and collaboration on an epic scale: no turf wars, positioning or hostile briefing.
This is not business as usual, and will not be so for a long time. Good wishes are welcome but not enough. Now is the time for our most senior politicians to show that they truly understand how to behave when history comes knocking on the door.