A prime minister away for three weeks, and in his absence a cabinet forced to make hard decisions about the economy and the future direction of the country. It’s a scenario Downing Street plays down, but there is a precedent: in November 1956 at the height of the Suez crisis. A seriously ill Anthony Eden sought rest and recuperation in the Caribbean just as United Nations troops were arriving in Egypt to enforce the ceasefire agreed to by Britain and France.
With a prime minister near incommunicado in Jamaica, and with the eyes of the world on them, the cabinet took necessary action, not least the restoration of good relations with the United States; the Eisenhower administration would only help stabilise the British economy if Anglo-French forces withdrew.
This meant orchestrating the evacuation of Port Said, pressurising an aggrieved French government into withdrawing forces from Port Fuad, and negotiating with Washington on monetary support for sterling.
At home the principal task was placating rebellious right-wingers on the Conservative backbenches, who were indignant the taskforce had not seized the Canal before heeding the UN’s wishes. This hyper-activity signals the degree to which senior ministers, if working effectively with the Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials, can maintain the decision-making process in the prolonged absence of the prime minister.
In the end, Eden’s return was seen by colleagues as something of an embarrassment. Serious questions concerned his health, let alone his actions and behaviour across the preceding six months, and his political capital was exhausted. The Christmas recess offered a reprieve, but, by late January 1957, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had moved next-door to Number Ten.
Harold Macmillan had emerged as the cabinet’s dominant personality while Eden was away. At a truly calamitous time, Macmillan restored confidence within the parliamentary party, discreetly taking the hard decisions while wilily courting popularity. Tory grandees advised the Queen, and a seemingly unflappable Macmillan secured his reward.
Yet Macmillan was not the favourite to succeed; nor was he the de facto prime minister during Eden’s absence. Rab Butler, former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, was Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the Commons. Although deeply sceptical about military intervention in Egypt, he was Eden’s choice to take charge. Ensconced in Downing Street, Butler was the face of government, announcing unpopular policies and initiatives. Yet he failed to seize the crown.
Out-manoeuvred by Macmillan, he was inept in projecting an image of firm leadership. There was no clear constitutional procedure governing Rab Butler’s appointment, and the same applies to Dominic Raab deputising for Boris Johnson. Ironically, Butler was the first First Secretary of State, a nominal post created by Macmillan in 1962 for a senior cabinet minister without a portfolio; as was the case with Michael Heseltine when John Major resurrected the title in 1995.
When, as in the 1960s, or across the past two decades, party heavyweights have been named First Secretary of State, they normally hold another post, too. Raab’s title was seemingly the ultra-Brexiteer’s reward for loyalty to Johnson at Michael Gove’s expense.
During this critical time, the First Secretary of State almost certainly has better things to do than revisit the Suez crisis. But should he do so, he will find the twin lessons of 1956 are that cabinets can take serious action in the absence of the premier, and that power is transient for whoever finds themselves as the stand-in voice of the nation.
Adrian Smith is an emeritus professor of Modern History at the University of Southampton