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Explainer: The UK doesn't have the equivalent of a tánaiste, so who's in charge right now?

Dominic Raab is deputising for Boris Johnson, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Image: PA Images

Updated Apr 7th 2020, 4:07 PM

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson is currently in intensive care after contracting Covid-19. 

As is only right and to be expected, there have been messages from across the world wishing Johnson well.

At present, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is chairing the UK government’s daily coronavirus meetings and has also been asked to “deputise where necessary”.

This suggests that Rabb will lead the government should Johnson become incapacitated, but this is not automatically the case.

The entire protocol is complicated but it is worth exploring in the current circumstances.

So what is the constitutional position?

The United Kingdom does not have a single written constitution. Instead, the constitutional basis for laws has been established over centuries of precedent. 

In Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann lays out that the tánaiste takes on the role of taoiseach should the taoiseach become incapacitated. The tánaiste also acts in place of the taoiseach during the taoiseach’s absence. 

The UK does not have similar rules. There is no formal deputy prime minister with a defined role and the position only exists if the prime minister appoints one.

If the prime minister is out of the country, for example, they nominate a minister to take over duties, such as at prime minister’s questions. 

The First Secretary

As well as his role as Foreign Secretary, Raab was appointed as First Secretary when Johnson became Prime Minister last July.

This does not however make him a deputy prime minister nor does it grant him any specific powers. 

As the charitable think tank the Institute for Government explains:

the prime minister is primus inter pares (first among equals) in the UK cabinet system. The UK is governed by the entire cabinet, with individual powers invested in specific cabinet positions.

The prime minister holds both formal and informal powers as the most senior adviser to the queen, from which some of his or her authority is derived, but can only govern with the support of the cabinet.

There is a hierarchy to the cabinet, which usually denotes the seating order around the cabinet table, and which includes one member of cabinet being designated as ‘first secretary of state’.

But while the role of First Secretary essentially grants Raab seniority around the cabinet table behind Johnson, it does not mean he would automatically take Johnson’s responsibilities should he not be able to fulfill them. 

The role of First Secretary is a ceremonial role and the power it wields is usually dependent on the holder’s relationship with the PM. 

It is, however, often taken as an expression of the PM’s preferred successor.  

Perhaps most illustratively, William Hague of the Conservative Party was first secretary in David Cameron’s first administration while leader of coalition partners the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg was deputy prime minister. 

Hague, or even chancellor George Osborne, were therefore seen as the more likely to step in in the event of Cameron becoming incapacitated.

But in the current circumstances, is the position of First Secretary more important?  

Yes, Raab’s position is undoubtedly more important now. Not only because he is First Secretary but because he has been delegated extra responsibility by Johnson.

In the cabinet manual published by the UK government, it states that “a minister may be appointed First Secretary of State to indicate seniority” and adds that their responsibilities “vary according to the circumstance”. 

The current circumstances are by any measure extraordinary. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman had previously stated that Raab would take over if Johnson was unable to work due to illness. Then on Monday evening Downing Street said Raab would “deputise where necessary”.

This would seemingly give Raab broad scope to lead the UK government should Johnson be incapacitated. 

But what would happen should Raab also be unable to do the job due to illness or another reason? 

In an update this afternoon, Downing Street said it would be Chancellor Rishi Sunak:

Under the established order of precedence, the Prime Minister has appointed the Foreign Secretary as his First Secretary of State. In line with the order of precedence, the Chancellor would follow from the Foreign Secretary.

Downing Street added that it would look into whether to publish the list for the order of precedence for other Cabinet ministers. 

Earlier today, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was forced to self-isolate after a family member was showing symptoms of the virus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously tested positive for Covid-19 but has since left self-isolation. 

Red Box 

Only yesterday, prior to him entering intensive care, Johnson’s spokesman said the PM had received his ministerial red box containing his official papers and was continuing to work from hospital.

Today, according to the Institute for Government, Raab was handed Johnson’s red box of daily briefing papers. 

It is not known how long Johnson will remain in intensive care and questions therefore remain about whether Raab would stand in for his boss on the weekly call between the PM and the queen. 

BBC News also notes that Raab could perhaps perform some other duties of the PM  “without too much problem”, such as making judicial recommendations, but that conducting a cabinet reshuffle or authorising military action could be more complicated.

Responding to questions of security, the PM’s spokesman said: 

The First Secretary of State and the Cabinet have the authority and ability to respond in the Prime Minister’s absence. The UK has a robust national security architecture, including the National Security Council, which is designated to be resilient and able to operate effectively under different circumstances.

“To give a practical example, should the National Security Council be required then the Foreign Secretary would chair it,” he added.  

The letters of last resort written by Boris Johnson remain in place, the No 10 spokesman said.

“The Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister,” they said.

Source: Guardian News/YouTube

Raab himself has so far sought to play down his role, repeatedly stating yesterday that his remit was to lead the government’s coronavirus response, without referencing other matters. 

“The Prime Minister asked me as First Secretary to deputise for him were necessary in driving forward the government’s plans to defeat coronavirus,” Raab told reporters. 

The focus of the government will continue to be on making sure, at the Prime Minister’s direction, that all the plans for us defeat coronavirus and pull through this challenge will be taken forward.
It was also confirmed today that Raab is continuing to work Foreign Office but is being assisted by officials from “across government”. 

Appointing a new prime minister

The Institute of Government explains that if a prime minister resigned suddenly or died, and there was a majority government, it would be up to the cabinet to recommend an immediate successor to the queen.

In a previous article ahead of Johnson’s election as Conservative leader, TheJournal.ie outlined that prime ministers in the UK are appointed by the queen rather than elected by parliament. 

The queen’s role in this regard is to find someone who can command the confidence of the House of Commons.  

In the current circumstances, it would therefore be expected that the queen would ask Raab to form a government. This could potentially be on an interim basis, at least until the Conservative Party elected a new leader. 

- With reporting by Press Association 

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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