All of us wish Boris a speedy recovery. All of us want to put party and personal politics on hold. But we must get real. Boris commands loyalty of his cabinet and MPs for one simple reason; if it wasn’t for him they wouldn’t be there. Its all very well to talk about cabinet government; About the PM being the first amongst equals. But with an 80 majority he commands. If there is a disagreement, about when lockdown ends, he alone will decide. End of. Of course, if it goes horribly wrong, it’s on his watch. His ‘loyal’ cabinet colleagues would desert him. Remember Suez and Eden.
No Cabinet (junior ministers don’t count as they are merely cyphers) in living memory has experienced a crisis on this scale. No civil servant has either. So there is no institutional memory. With one exception; the Queen. But it’s not her job to run this. Hers is to advise, warn and give consent. And Raab doesn’t get an audience with her. So, what what are we left with? A Rolls Royce civil service (at the highest level) and a very inexperienced cabinet. There are no greybeards. No grandees. Nobody who can say to poor old Raab, ‘dear boy, this is what we did in 1980’.
To be a Cabinet minister must be terrifying at the moment. Sunak is doing his impressive best, as is Hancock. Gove, the most competent of the lot, is struggling. I still don’t understand why it took him so long to put into words that Raab is now in charge. Well, actually I can. Raab was ‘appointed’ by Boris as First Secretary, in his typical, ‘oh, I suppose we need one old chap, it’s you’, because protocol demands it. If a PM is incapacitated someone has to make those very private decisions that most of us will never hear about. An example. A passenger airliner is heading towards central London and is off course. The pilot doesn’t respond. There is a protocol which has to be followed. Fighter jets are sent up. Waggle their wings and warn. The PM has to decide whether to shoot it down, killing innocents, or take the risk of killing thousands of Londoners. Cameron had at least one of those experiences. It, for the time being, is Raab’s call now. And what of those launch codes? Don’t be too worried about this. Bomber commanders have a way (I’m not going to tell you!) of working out whether the order of a launch is genuine or not. But on advice, it would be Raab’s.
So poor old Raab. All he had to worry about was Brexit. Now he has some serious shit to deal with. Not politics. Lives. He is trying to run a Cabinet where he has no democratic mandate. No command. And a lot of resentment .He is there by fortune. Or bad luck. He will be looked down on by Gove and Sunak for being a lightweight. And he is. But he must be supported. For now. Politicians, no matter how noble (discuss) will always look for opportunities to further their ambitions. This really isn’t the time. The public will hate it. Their friends neighbours and family are dying. Alone. And it works both ways. I am sure it is not a coincidence that it was a Foreign Office minister who suggested that Boris take a break and let.......oooh, Raab hold the reins.
The nature of cabinet government is jockeying for power when a weakness is shown by a leader. ill health has dogged Prime ministers. Eden messed up Suez because of a botched operation and, of course, American betrayal. MacMillan resigned because of a health problem which was not as serious as he thought. Churchill got away with it because of a supine press. Those days are gone. Boris’s problem is more nuanced. His recovery will take time. Remember that old Doctor Who episode when a PM had outraged him. ‘I will destroy you with three words which he whispered to an aide. ‘Doesn’t she look tired’. And that was the end. Of her.
But Raab has some big decisions to make in the next few weeks. The public demand that lives must come first. Follow the science. Not dogma. It’s not easy. And you will be very, very alone.