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Dispatch

Sitting in for Boris Johnson, Raab Says He’s Only Part of a ‘Great Team’

The coronavirus-infected British prime minister is still on oxygen in the ICU but is said to be stable, while his foreign minister takes the reins.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab leaves Downing Street in central London on April 6. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON—Looking a bit flustered, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab gave his first speech after effectively becoming Britain’s acting prime minister Monday night, saying that with Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized with the coronavirus the cabinet was working as “a great team” to keep order. 

Raab’s remarks were a strong hint that he will be running the country in a triumvirate with Johnson’s other two key political allies, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, following the admission of their boss, Johnson, to intensive care. According to a spokesman, Johnson’s condition remains stable, with the ill premier on oxygen but not requiring ventilation. But he is not expected to be fully fit for work for at least two weeks, according to at least one Downing Street insider. 

Although the 46-year-old Raab, a former lawyer who studied at both Oxford and Cambridge universities and made his political career through passionate advocacy of Britain’s exit from the European Union, is nominally in charge for the moment, Downing Street insiders stress that real power remains in the hands of Johnson’s “three amigos”: Raab, Sunak, and Gove. 

“We’re all worried for Boris. … The mood is somber,” said one senior civil servant not authorized to speak on the record. “But government continues as usual.”

Usual, of course, is hardly an appropriate term for the uniquely challenging time that lies ahead with the coronavirus crisis decimating the British economy and the government battered with accusations of acting too slowly on everything from proceeding testing kits to providing appropriate protective gear to front-line medical workers. But at least for the moment, Johnson—doubly struck down not only by the virus but also by his own self-imposed punishing work schedule while ill at home—is the object of more sympathy than blame. Raab, it seems, is not only the government’s designated survivor but will also likely become the designated blame recipient, too, as Britain heads into the peak of the coronavirus crisis. 

Raab is known mainly as a dedicated Johnson loyalist, and was named first secretary of state—effectively deputy prime minister—by Johnson last July. In the 10 years since he became a member of Parliament, Raab has acquired a reputation for principled—if not always judicious—championing of conservative and libertarian causes. One of his early political victories was in overturning positive discrimination at the Foreign Office in 2010, forcing the government to scrap a recruitment assistance scheme that excluded white, privately educated males. “We will not end discrimination in our society by introducing it through the back door, which is what positive discrimination like this does,” Raab argued. 

He has also campaigned against what he describes as “anti-male discrimination,” blasting radical feminists as “obnoxious bigots” in a 2011 article for PoliticsHome. Raab refused to back down under criticism from then-Home Secretary Theresa May, insisting to the Evening Standard that “we need consistent standards of equality.” 

Despite his elite education—including sparring as a boxer and karate black belt at the University of Oxford—Raab, unlike Johnson, is not a typical product of the British establishment. His father, Peter Raab, who was Jewish, arrived in the U.K. from Czechoslovakia at the age of six in 1938 as a refugee from Nazi persecution. Though brought up in his mother’s Anglican faith, Raab is the first person of Jewish ancestry to lead Britain since Benjamin Disraeli stepped down as prime minister in 1880. He attended a state-funded grammar school, then won a place to study law at Oxford. He did his master’s at the University of Cambridge, winning the Clive Parry Prize for International Law. His wife, Erika Rey, is Brazilian and worked until earlier this year in the marketing department of Google. 

Ideologically, Raab has always been on the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, publishing several books and pamphlets critical of the surveillance state and of encroachments on free speech and basic liberties. “We should be using intercept to prosecute terrorists, not using Orwellian surveillance on every innocent citizen,” he wrote in 2010. “Sacrificing British liberties will not protect us. It just plays into the hands of the terrorists.” 

But it is Raab’s hard-line stance on Brexit that has propelled him to nationwide prominence—and laid the foundations of his cabinet career. Raab was an early backer of Britain’s exit from the EU, though he soon became critical of the May government’s soft negotiating approach. In November 2018, Raab resigned after four months as Brexit secretary in protest at the draft withdrawal agreement, which he believed left the U.K. too closely tied to EU institutions. He also argued that Britain had no obligation to pay the so-called divorce bill, which the EU calculated at nearly $50 billion. Raab declared himself as an arch-Leaver ahead of the 2016 referendum in an article in the Daily Telegraph, describing the debate about Brexit as “at heart … a choice between optimism and pessimism. The Remain camp have spent four months telling us Britain won’t amount to much, standing on our own two feet. The Leave campaign is the side with the ambition for Britain, and the belief in the British people.” 

People who have worked with Raab describe him as determined to the point of obstinacy, particularly on Brexit. In 2018, at the height of negotiations with the EU, Foreign Office colleagues described Raab as “Dumb Dom” after he revealed a basic ignorance of the scale of cross-channel trade, according to one former British member of the European Parliament. 

“Raab’s always pretty sound, ready to tell civil servants where to get off,” said the former member, who requested anonymity. “But as a result he was pretty much hated by everyone in the Department [for Exiting the EU] … same story at the Foreign Office. They’re all Europhiles.” Raab’s EU counterparts were even less sympathetic, nicknaming him “Ruebe” or “Raap,” from the word for turnip in German and Dutch, according to the source. 

In 2019, Raab was one of the leadership challengers who stood against Johnson after the resignation of Theresa May as Conservative Party leader. His hard-line stance helped Johnson position himself as a moderate Brexiteer—and when Raab dropped out of the race, he quickly backed Johnson against more Brexit-skeptic rivals. Raab’s reward, when Johnson formed his first cabinet in July 2019, was the post of foreign secretary and first secretary of state. Since then, he has been a steady Johnson loyalist, and during the coronavirus crisis he regularly appeared in Johnson’s place at nightly press briefings. 

He has also campaigned for unexplained wealth orders, a controversial measure designed to keep track of overseas criminal money in the British economy. 

Raab’s personal style has been satirized in the British press as controlling and ill-tempered. John Crace, a parliamentary humor writer for the left-leaning Guardian daily described Raab’s recent performance at a press conference as “cosplaying Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove. A man so clinically unstable he has yet to realise he is by far the most dangerous person in any room he enters. … Often Raab is a ball of barely repressed anger, the vein on this forehead throbbing metronomically as he tries to front out any tricky questions.” Other, more sympathetic writers such as the Times’s Quentin Letts have described his demeanor as that of a preternaturally “calm … airline pilot.” 

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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