If there is a solitary silver lining to the very dark cloud hanging above Downing Street right now, it is that Boris Johnson had the foresight to name a deputy.
Had the Prime Minister been admitted to intensive care without giving Cabinet ministers a clear idea of who should take charge, an already difficult situation would have been made impossible.
With reports of festering tensions between Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, as those leading the Government’s response to Covid-19 have vied to assert their authority, it is fair to say the naming of Dominic Raab as stand-in for “the Boss” prompted sighs of relief from both ministers and MPs.
While ambitious enough to have run for the Tory leadership last June, Mr Raab has received plaudits for the unselfish way in which he has so far reacted to unexpectedly being asked to run the country.
Setting out his stall on Monday in his first interview following news of Mr Johnson’s admission to the critical care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London, former lawyer turned First Secretary Mr Raab was keen to stress that the Cabinet would be operating as a collective.
Insisting the Government would be working “at the Prime Minister’s direction”, he said: “There’s an incredibly strong team spirit behind the Prime Minister, and making sure we get all of the plans that the PM has instructed us to deliver and get them implemented as soon as possible – that’s the way we’ll bring the whole country through the coronavirus challenge that we face right now.”
Yet while the sense of camaraderie is admirable, such a power vacuum at the heart of Number 10 when Britain is in the grip of its biggest national emergency in peacetime will strike some as disconcerting, and others as downright daunting.
Can a rudderless Cabinet deferring to a seriously ill Prime Minister in his hospital bed really be the best way out of this crisis? And what effect might Mr Johnson’s absence have on the lockdown?
With the PM still not out of the woods, any hint of disloyalty appears to be a very bad look right now, even among the cravenly self-interested inhabitants of the Westminster village.
As one mischievous Cabinet minister put it: “Even Michael Gove isn’t on manoeuvres for once – it would be so insensitive.”
That, however, has not stopped some of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s acolytes – once described as “Govoids” by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel – questioning whether Mr Raab, the Foreign Secretary, is up to the task.
One Tory MP said: “The consensus is that in the short-term we should definitely get behind him [Mr Raab] because it’s such an urgent, pressing situation. But in the medium to longer term, if Boris is still not well enough then Dominic is probably not the right person to lead the Government or the party.”
Pointing to Mr Raab being beaten in the third round of the Conservative leadership contest by Rory Stewart, the MP suggested he was “quite an abrasive and divisive figure”, adding: “You have to have someone who is well respected or who has the legitimacy.
“We’re in an unfortunate situation where the Home Secretary has question marks over her, the Chancellor is very new – and therefore Dom, of the Great Offices of State, is in pole position.
“Gove is someone we could live with. Obviously not everyone likes him, but people could live with him. It obviously has to be someone who is experienced in Cabinet.”
Yet Mr Gove, currently in 14 days self-isolation after his daughter developed coronavirus symptoms, remains unpopular with huge swathes of the party for stabbing Mr Johnson in the back in the 2016 leadership race. As one MP put it: “Most Tories would trust Raab more than Gove. They are mistrustful of anyone who seems on permanent manoeuvres.”
While not actively on manoeuvres, Mr Gove was said to be “puzzled that leading the Government’s plans to tackle the coronavirus went to someone who didn’t cover a related domestic portfolio”, according to one Conservative colleague.
Yet it seems both Cabinet and party loyalty currently lie squarely with Mr Johnson.
Instead of deferring to Mr Raab, lauded for “taking control without throwing his weight around”, the rhetorical question being asked by those around the virtual Cabinet table right now is: “What would Boris do?”
As one explained: “Dom was very sensible in talking about it being a Cabinet collective and team effort from the off. We are all thinking: ‘What would Boris do? What would he want us to do? How would he want us to behave?’
“History is going to judge us on this, and we don’t want to be remembered as a bunch of egos out to get each other but as politicians who stood up and helped the country through this.”
The Prime Minister’s hospitalisation also appears to have narrowed what at the weekend appeared to be a growing divide between those in favour of lifting the lockdown sooner, such as the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and those advocating later, such as Mr Hancock and Mr Gove.
Now it has emerged that the three-week review of the measures that Mr Johnson had promised would happen on Easter Monday is unlikely to take place at all.
One Cabinet minister who had previously been in favour of removing the restrictions “in weeks not months” said the Prime Minister’s worsening condition had made the case for keeping the restrictions in place.
“It makes the country more accepting of the need for lockdown when the PM is potentially fighting for his life,” they said. Describing the Cabinet consensus, the minister added: “We moved to lockdown when the country was ready for it, and we only lift the lockdown when the country is ready.”
Another Cabinet minister, who also hinted that Monday’s reassessment wouldn’t go ahead, agreed, saying: “I don’t think it was ever a firm date. We’ve got to follow the peak. Experts are saying that will happen in seven to 10 days, so any unwinding of the restrictions before that is going to strike the public as premature.
“What we are having to balance here is hard science and public confidence in the lockdown. At every stage of this crisis, we’ve taken the public with us. Yes, there have been some blips on the way, but the PM made the case for the lockdown so we have to make the case for lifting it.
“The peak is forecast for April 20, so only after that can we even begin to think about a controlled step down. It may be that the restrictions can be more easily lifted for certain sectors of the economy more than others.”
Although it has been mooted that schools could open ahead of entertainment venues or businesses, a source close to Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, admitted that “there is no firm plan in place”.
Earlier this week, University College London released a report suggesting school closures had little impact on the spread of the virus, but Mr Williamson apparently remains unconvinced.
“The UCL study talks about reopening schools while keeping social distancing measures, but on earth does that work?” the insider said.
Insisting he would continue to “follow the science”, he added: “As far as Gavin is concerned, schools must remain closed for as long as needed. When the scientific advice changes then the department will react accordingly – but so far there is no scientific advice suggesting schools should reopen.”