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Argument

Keep Calm, the British Government Will Carry On

Boris Johnson’s hospitalization has sparked fears of instability, but the U.K. government has functioned smoothly in the absence of prime ministers in the past and continues to do so today.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (center) and other cabinet ministers listen as Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his first cabinet meeting after the general election, in London on Dec. 17, 2019.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (center) and other cabinet ministers listen as Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his first cabinet meeting after the general election, in London on Dec. 17, 2019. Matt Dunham/WPA Pool/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently in intensive care receiving treatment for COVID-19. Johnson faces his own personal health crisis. But it is not necessarily a crisis for the British political system. The prime minister is of course a key figure in the British government, but he is not a president. In a presidential system, executive power rests solely with the head of government. But the British system, by contrast, is one of collective government by the cabinet. So there is no reason for panic due to the prime minister’s absence.

Admittedly Britain, lacking the advantage of a constitution, has no definitive procedures for what is to happen when a prime minister can no longer preside over the cabinet. But that does not give rise to major difficulties. The cabinet, after all, is nothing more than a committee, albeit the highest political authority in the land. When the chair of a committee is indisposed, the deputy takes the chair. So it is with the cabinet. The prime minister simply designates a minister to act as deputy and preside in his absence.

In a presidential system, executive power rests solely with the head of government. But the British system is one of collective government by the cabinet. So there is no reason for panic due to the prime minister’s absence.

That is what happened when Winston Churchill was incapacitated by a stroke in 1953, and Anthony Eden, the normal deputy, was also unwell; and when Harold Macmillan was stricken with prostate trouble in 1963. This arrangement is in fact routine when prime ministers go on overseas visits or on holiday. The only power that the prime minister cannot delegate is that of hiring and firing ministers.

In 2019, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was designated as the first secretary of state, so it is he who serves as deputy while Johnson is in the hospital, chairing the cabinet’s virtual meetings and also the daily meetings which coordinate the government response to the coronavirus. But, like Johnson, he is first among equals and cannot overrule the collective will of other ministers. Decisions, for example, on raising lockdown restrictions will be decided collectively.

The more difficult question is what happens if a prime minister dies in office. This has not occurred, fortunately, since the death of Lord Palmerston at the age of 80 in 1865. Recent prime ministers have been far younger. But a death in office nearly occurred following a terrorist attack by the Irish Republican Army that targeted Margaret Thatcher and other Conservative leaders in 1984.

Fortunately, Thatcher survived. But officials asked themselves what the procedure would have been had she been assassinated. At that time, the electors of the new Conservative Party leader and prime minister would have been Conservative members of Parliament. Today, all party members can cast a vote. This lengthens the period of the vacancy, especially if, as is likely, there are more than two candidates.

The more difficult question is what happens if a prime minister dies in office, which nearly occurred after a terrorist attack by the Irish Republican Army on Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

In that case, MPs vote in a series of rounds to whittle down the number of candidates. In each round, candidates who do not meet a certain threshold of votes are eliminated. The final two candidates are then presented to the members, who, last year, chose Boris Johnson over Jeremy Hunt, then the foreign secretary. The winner is then appointed by the queen, whose role in the process is purely formal.

In 2019, this process took six weeks as Theresa May remained at the helm until her successor was chosen. This raises the question of who runs the government during this interregnum if the sitting prime minister is incapacitated or dies in office. The problem is that the first secretary of state or deputy prime minister, if there is one, might also be a candidate for the leadership as Raab himself was in 2019.

Other candidates might object to a competitor acting as prime minister during the interregnum, which would give him or her a competitive advantage. When there is a coalition government, the deputy prime minister may be the leader of the minority party. In the 2010-2015 coalition, the prime minister was David Cameron, from the majority party, the Conservatives. The deputy was Nick Clegg, from the minority party in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats. It is highly unlikely that the Conservatives would, in the event of a vacancy, have been prepared to allow a Liberal Democrat to act as prime minister while a new leader was chosen.

In 1984, after Thatcher’s brush with death, officials took the view that the Lord Chancellor should preside, since as a member of the House of Lords he or she could not be a candidate. But now the Lord Chancellorship is combined with the role of justice secretary and sits in the House of Commons, so that person could be a candidate. Normally, the only cabinet minister who could not be a candidate for the leadership would be the leader of the House of Lords. But there is no reason to believe that he or she would be suitable as acting prime minister. The current leader, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, is hardly known to the wider public at all.

Probably the best solution would be for the cabinet to identify the most senior politician who is definitely not a candidate, an elder statesperson, and ask him or her to preside during the interim period. No appointment process by the queen is needed for someone serving in this capacity, and the government and civil service would continue to function without change.

Johnson is 55 and was, before his COVID-19 diagnosis, fit and in good health, having exercised regularly. There is every hope that he will soon return to Downing Street. But governments must make provisions for every eventuality, however unlikely they may appear.

It is time, surely, for succession procedures to be codified. It is, of course, unlikely that Britain will adopt a constitution in the near future. But these protocols could be codified in the Cabinet Manual, an authoritative collection of the internal rules and conventions under which the British government operates.

The COVID-19 crisis has cost many lives; it has caused great distress and considerable financial losses. But it has not, and will not, undermine the British system of government, which remains one of the most stable in the world.

Vernon Bogdanor is a professor of government at King’s College, London and the author of Brexit and the Constitution. His Stimson Lectures on World Affairs, “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World,” will be published in November.

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