Maggie Pagano talks to Vernon Bogdanor, the distinguished Professor of Government at King’s College, London, about whether the absence of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister leaves a vacuum at the heart of government and a crisis for the political system.

Professor Bogdanor, who famously taught David Cameron, the former Prime Minister at Oxford University, is arguably one of the country’s finest experts on constitutional history and governance. His authority comes from his wisdom as a constitutional historian and the clarity of his analysis of contemporary history. While a great advocate of Britain’s system of constitutional monarchy, he is also a champion of electoral reform. He also argues that the country’s Cabinet Manual – a “codified” text and the closest thing that Britain has to anything resembling a constitution – could do with a few licks of paint.

As such an authority on all things to do with British governance, Bogdanor is the man to answer the many questions surrounding the conundrum that Britain now faces with its Prime Minister possibly away on sick-leave for a few more weeks or returning next week at half-strength. His conclusion? The Prime Minister is the Prime Minister whether he is away ill or not. There is no formal place in the UK’s system for a deputy PM. 

Professor Vernon Bogdanor. From: Gresham College/CC0

Maggie Pagano: Boris Johnson has been seriously ill and it is likely he will be away for a few more weeks recovering. There are some who claim – on the right and left – that his absence has left the government rudderless, and that he should temporarily step down as PM and that an acting PM be appointed until he recuperates. What is your view?  

Vernon Bogdanor: Boris Johnson should under no circumstances resign. I am sure it will only be a short time before he is back. And it sounds as if Boris has begun to work, that he is on the phone to ministers and moving slowly back to resuming the full duties of the premiership. The Prime Minister is of course a very powerful figure in British government, particularly someone in Boris Johnson’s position. He has, after all, just won a large majority in an election, based to a large extent on his own personal manifesto.

But he is not a president.  In a presidential system like the US, executive power rests solely with the head of government. But here in Britain our system is one of collective Cabinet government so there is no reason for anyone to panic while the Prime Minister is recovering.

The British system, of collective Cabinet responsibility, is working well, even in the absence of the Prime Minister.

It is important to remember that, although the PM is powerful, Prime Ministers don’t generally win the argument by putting them to a vote in Cabinet. The Cabinet does not often operate through majority rule. The Prime Minister has to find a formula that works for the Cabinet as a whole, a formula that enables them all to move forward.

We must not forget that the Cabinet can overrule a PM at any point, and can even in the last resort, remove him. It was, after all, the Cabinet which broke Margaret Thatcher over Europe, and the Cabinet which insisted that Tony Blair would have to give a date when he would resign after Blair supported an Israeli military operation in Gaza, something which many ministers opposed.

The Covid-19 crisis and the PM’s illness have undoubtedly caused great distress but they have not undermined the British system of government which remains amongst the most stable in the world.

Not much has changed since 1777 when General Burgoyne surrendered to the Americans at Saratoga, and a young British aristocrat said to Adam Smith: “This will be the ruin of the nation”. “Young man”, Smith replied: “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. That remains the case.

MP: If that is the case, why do so many people claim there is a vacuum at the heart of government?

VB: The criticism shows how important Boris is to the government, in particular because he is such a fine communicator. Someone once defined democracy as government by explanation, and it is vital to have a good communicator at the heart of a democratic government. Boris is by far the best communicator in the Cabinet, perhaps in Parliament as a whole.

MP:  Can you explain what the formal procedure is if the PM cannot preside over Cabinet?

VB:  Britain has no definitive procedures for what happens when a Prime Minister can no longer preside over Cabinet. However, that does not give rise to any particular difficulty. We should not perhaps become too mystical about the Cabinet. Cabinet government, as Bagehot pointed out long ago, is government by a committee. The Cabinet, although it is the highest political authority in the land, is a committee.

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. 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.

Appointing a designate is 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 Theresa May’s government, first Damian Green and then David Lidington, were given the title of First Secretary of State. Had Theresa May died in office, either would presumably have been acceptable, since neither was likely to be a candidate for the succession.

MP: Could the sovereign theoretically appoint a deputy/caretaker PM?

VB: In theory, yes. However, our conventions are that the monarch cannot take initiatives on her own. She must follow the advice of her ministers. There has been no occasion when a caretaker Prime Minister has been appointed by the Queen because a Prime Minister is incapacitated or has died in office. There was some talk of Lord Salisbury being appointed on such a basis in 1953 when both Churchill and Eden, Churchill’s  putative successor, were seriously ill. Salisbury was not as a peer eligible to be Prime Minister, and would have resigned once Churchill was fit to resume  But, in the event, no caretaker was needed, and R.A. Butler, the senior Cabinet minister in the Commons, presided over the Cabinet until the interregnum came to an end.

MP: Boris Johnson gave Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State, the role of acting PM. What does the position entail and where does it originate from?

VB: Raab deputises while the Prime Minister is indisposed. He chairs Cabinet and also the daily meetings which co-ordinate the government’s response to Covid 19. The title of First Secretary was a new one given by the Cabinet in 1962 to Butler by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The Queen appoints the PM, but the deputy is not appointed by her. He is instead designated by the Prime Minister.

MP: Does an acting PM have other more formal powers?

VB: No, Raab does not. Like the Prime Minister, he is first among equals and cannot overrule the collective will of other ministers. Decisions, for example, on raising lockdown restrictions will be taken collectively.

MP: What happens if a Prime Minister dies in office?

VB: Fortunately, this has not occurred since the death of Lord Palmerston at the age of 80 in 1865. Recent Prime Ministers have been far younger. The closest we have come in recent years was when Margaret Thatcher was nearly assassinated by the IRA in 1984.

Happily, she survived. But senior civil servants were forced to ask themselves what the procedure would have been had she been assassinated. They came to the view that the Lord Chancellor, who could not himself be a candidate for the succession, should preside while Conservative MPs chose a successor. But today the Lord Chancellor need not be a peer, and the post is combined with the Justice Secretaryship. The holder, therefore, could be a candidate. In addition, the electoral college now includes party members as well as MPs. So the whole process is likely to take much longer.

MP: Who runs the government during such a hypothetical  interregnum?

VB: The problem is that the First Secretary of State or indeed Deputy Prime Minister, if there is one, might also be a candidate for the leadership. Dominic Raab might well be a candidate if there were to be a vacancy, as he was in 2019. Other candidates are likely to object to a competitor acting as Prime Minister during the interregnum, as it might give him a competitive advantage.

The only Cabinet minister who could definitely 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, Lady Evans of Bowes Park, is hardly known to the wider public so such an option is unlikely.

Probably the best solution would be for the Cabinet to identify the most senior politician who is definitely not a candidate, an elder statesman or stateswoman, and ask him or her to preside during the interim period.  Such an appointment would be agreed by the Cabinet, rather than being appointed by the Queen. And of course the government and civil service function normally during the interregnum.

MP: Should there be a formal role for a deputy Prime Minister?

VB: We have had some deputy Prime Ministers before, but whether there is one or not is a personal decision taken by the Prime Minister of the day. Geoffrey Howe was deputy to Margaret Thatcher, and of course, Nick Clegg was deputy to David Cameron. When there is a coalition government as there was in 2010, then having the leader of the minority party as deputy PM makes sense.  But, in the event of a vacancy, I doubt if the Cabinet would have been prepared to allow a Liberal Democrat to act as Prime Minister while a new Conservative leader was chosen.

It is certainly time for the procedures to be codified when a Prime Minister is unwell, or, for other reasons, unable to preside over Cabinet, or when a Prime Minister dies in office. One way of doing this would be to codify an agreed procedure in the Cabinet Manual, the authoritative collection of the internal rules and conventions under which British government operates. Before the election in 2010, I worked with Gus O’Donnell, then the Cabinet Secretary, on the Cabinet Manual so that there could be clarity on the procedures were there to be a hung parliament. But, unfortunately, I did not suggest looking at procedures for when the Prime Minister could not preside over Cabinet or dies in office!

MP: Should Sir Keir Starmer and other opposition MPs be invited to join a government of national unity considering the gravity of the pandemic affecting the country?

VB: I do not think a government of national unity would be either necessary or helpful. It would deprive the opposition of the ability to scrutinise and, where necessary, to scrutinise the government’s handling of the crisis. That’s why Labour refused to join Neville Chamberlain’s government from 1939-1940. Governments need to be kept on their toes even during crisis periods.

Professor Bogdanor is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Oxford, and Emeritus Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. His Stimson lectures, “Britain and Europe in Troubled Times”, will be published by Yale University Press in November.