Britain’s flexible constitution will help us through this coronavirus crisis

BY John Oxley   /  7 April 2020

John Nance Gardener found the Vice Presidency of the United States “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. He would have been even more disappointed with being Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Vice President at least has a clear role and purpose: to wait. Divine Providence will decide whether they become the most powerful person in the world, or a footnote in political trivia.

The US Constitution decrees that in the death of the President, the Veep takes over forthwith. Lyndon Johnson took his Presidential oath 78 minutes after his predecessor’s death was confirmed. Jackie Kennedy stood next to him; her clothes still stained with her husband’s blood. The 25th Amendment also provides for them to step up if the President is temporarily incapacitated – Dick Cheney clocked up eight hours as Chief when George W. Bush was in surgery.

The Deputy PM has no such obvious utility, the British constitution no such brutal immediacy.

The position of DPM exists as a cabinet nicety rather than a formal role. Unlike other ministries, it has no statutory underpinning, and so no legal status. It is a relatively modern invention, created for Clement Attlee in the wartime coalition and held only intermittently since. Its purpose is political, not governmental.

The title was Nick Clegg’s prize for entering into the 2010 coalition, whilst Blair appointed John Prescott to show a link with the old left when pushing through his New Labour programme. Both Rab Butler and Geoffrey Howe held the title as consolation for other demotions. At no point were any guaranteed the top job were the sitting PM to be suddenly struck down.

There is even debate whether the DPM is the second inter pares after the Prime Minister. The curious role of First Secretary of State also exists – at times held with, in place of, and in rivalry to, the DPM. It equally has no legal standing or obvious powers, but it is under this guise that Dominic Raab is tipped to deputise for an unwell Boris Johnson.

Raab will have no new formal powers in this time. There is no such thing as an Acting Prime Minister. It is, in fact, little different to when the PM goes on holiday. Others, in this case the Foreign Secretary, will chair meetings on his behalf. Some decisions will be taken, some will be deferred. Those that do have to be made will be the product of senior cabinet discussion, rather than one person being thrust into the limelight.

This reflects the flexibility of the British constitution. In truth, few decisions need to be made personally by the Prime Minister. Most ministries can function without one. Urgent powers always have a back-up system in place. The Defence Secretary can deploy troops, whilst an alternative decision maker system for the nuclear deterrent is chosen at the start of an administration.

Perhaps the only thing a Prime Minister is personally needed for is advising Her Majesty on honours and archbishops, which is hardly essential in the midst of a crisis. Government can continue without a Prime Minister, using the collective experience of the cabinet.

As for succession, should the Prime Minister become permanently incapacitated, the constitution looks to the Crown. No formal rules of succession can ever fetter the Queen’s ability to choose her Prime Minister. It would be for cabinet to advise her, and for the Commons to provide confidence in any new leader. It is, in fact, the monarch who is more personally necessary – and the succession is obvious there.

This make-do-and-mend approach is typically British, but also sensible. The right person can be chosen for the right time, at the right time, rather than defaulting to a list of personnel who were picked in the past for entirely different reasons. In the US, the running mate picked to shore up the Bible Belt vote might not be the best candidate to step in to the President’s shoes. Here, there will be no sharp policy changes as a stand-in becomes supreme.

Thankfully, there are few examples to draw on. Whilst ten Vice Presidents have taken over the Presidency, no modern Prime Minister has become permanently incapacitated in office. Where temporary interruptions have happened, the government has muddled through. The only major ill-health previously suffered by a Prime Minister has been Churchill’s stroke in 1953. Entirely in keeping with his character, he deputised nothing, chairing cabinet the next day and continuing to run the nation whilst he recuperated in the county.

It is distressing for a country to find itself without a leader. There is an attraction the American system, which abhors a vacuum and fills it swiftly. Yet our own system shows nuance and agility, allowing a headless government to handle and adapt to a changing situation. That is perhaps what we need in bucketloads if the time ever comes.

John Oxley is a barrister and a Conservative commentator. 


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