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8 April 2020

How powerful is Dominic Raab as acting prime minister?

Raab is dependent on the consent of the cabinet to do anything, but he does have the authority to respond to an attack on the UK.

By Stephen Bush

Who’s in charge? That’s the question that dominates this morning’s papers, with both the Telegraph and the Guardian splashing on the question of just what Dominic Raab can, and can’t, do while Boris Johnson is out of action. 

The Prime Minister could be facing weeks in hospital and a long recovery time thereafter. So, superficially, the question over the scope and extent of Raab’s powers is a big one, particularly as in the coming days, the British government will have to decide whether or not to extend the lockdown. 

The reality, however, is that in practice these questions aren’t as important as they seem. Even a prime minister with as powerful a position within his party as Boris Johnson had at the start of this crisis could not extend or end measures of this kind without the support of his cabinet. 

To be blunt, Raab’s powers aren’t so very different from those of Theresa May’s after the 2017 general election: he can’t hire or fire ministers, he’s dependent on the consent of the cabinet to do anything, but he does have the authority to respond to an attack on the UK. And just as events such as the 2018 attack on the Skripals gave May a greater degree of power and freedom, in the event that decisions do need to be made by the acting PM, Raab will be able to intervene. 

This is far from the first time that a deputy PM has been called into action – the big difference is that in the past the deputising has been covered up. 

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In any case, it’s not clear that there are any big decisions to be made. The science on when you can even begin to contemplate easing the lockdown is clear: once the rate of new cases has been curbed and the virus has peaked, which will occur about four weeks after that has happened. Thus far, we have not yet curbed the rate of infections – indeed many of the patients in hospitals now will have been infected before the lockdown began. 

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So we are some way away from a situation in which ministers will need to reach decisions about ending the lockdown and how. The biggest question for Raab and co isn’t the extent of the acting prime minister’s powers: but the extent to which they should be being more explicit and honest about that reality.