Collegiate cooperation has been ostentatiously on display this week since Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital. Yet for all the businesslike collaboration in Whitehall, there is no denying a nervousness also lurks.
“We’re in a holding pattern at the moment,” said one insider. “We can get away with it for the time being. But it comes down to how long the PM is going to be out of action – and when the decision about the next phase [of the Covid-19 response] is going to come down the track.”
That nervousness is fuelled not just by Johnson’s absence. It has been aggravated by a crunch of gears, as Downing Street, initially determined to centralise power, has been forced to delegate responsibility at a time of national crisis. And with every passing hour, the elastic connecting Johnson with the actions of his ministers is being stretched.
According to officials, the weeks ahead will be about tweaking the dials of the response to the crisis – dozens of individual decisions that will ultimately dictate everyday life in Britain. And some of those decisions are already looming.
In the short term at least, several sources said the machinery of government is working well enough. Even critics of Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary leading the cabinet in Johnson’s absence, have commended his performance. At the daily 9.15am meeting, now largely a video conference with cabinet ministers hosted from the cabinet room, Raab has reassured the doubters by asking the right questions. As one put it: “The power has not gone to his head.” In fact, Raab’s approach, according to several allies, is simply to best execute the instructions he knows Johnson has given to the cabinet.
Meanwhile, the creation weeks ago of cabinet response sub-committees means that work streams were already in place, with the de facto “coronavirus quad” of Raab, chancellor Rishi Sunak, health secretary Matt Hancock and cabinet office minister Michael Gove all looking after their own briefs. It also ensured Raab was involved from early on.
Even on the most difficult issues, such as testing, personal protective equipment and financial aid, each minister knows the target they have been set. Clashes so far have been relatively minor, including complaints about the quality of the data flowing from the NHS. “I have not felt like I’ve been in a vacuum in the last week,” says one person heavily involved. “We’ve still had clear steers.”
Even with decisions such as whether the length of lockdown should be primarily to protect the economy or to protect lives , the Whitehall reality is currently not so stark. One of the most concerned about the overall health implications of a prolonged lockdown has been Hancock. Treasury officials are also concerned about the damage that a second spike could do if social distancing rules are relaxed too soon.
Yet while the governing process has managed to withstand a week without the prime minister, no one doubts this has been the easy part. Trouble lies ahead, as many decisions on the functioning of Britain’s pandemic response speed towards government.
Ahead is a period that gives the lie to the idea that the Covid-19 response is dictated by “the science”, as ministers have been keen to state. Work is under way to examine which lockdown measures are having most and least impact, requiring decisions on what could be dialled up and down.
Similar academic studies are looking at the impact on mental health. The effects on health are being examined by both health and Treasury officials. The extent to which people are not using the NHS for serious non-coronavirus issues is also causing concern, requiring decisions on new public communications.
Elsewhere, private industry is pressing to fill the gaps in Britain’s ability to make a vaccine should one become available. That could require the government taking big financial risks to build factories that may ultimately be redundant. All these issues, and many more, will require political decisions that will comprise the government’s strategy for the next phase of its coronavirus response. With the peak of the virus expected soon, each day that Johnson is out of action will be crucial.
It is an irony not lost on officials that this uncertainty is happening under a No 10 regime initially determined to consolidate power. “We still have cabinet government, but what’s missing is the political authority of the prime minister,” said Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government. “It is worth remembering that only a few months ago, Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor because No 10 and the prime minister seemed to want greater control over the Treasury. So we have a prime minister who was building up his own political power – in order to do the job he felt needed to be done.”
On top of that, officials say a system similar to a Tudor court had emerged in Downing Street. Advisers could argue their case, but only certain figures had Johnson’s ear. However, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s controversial senior adviser, has been self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, and trusted aides Ben Gascoigne and Eddie Lister have also been absent from No 10. According to some, it has focused minds on the question of who is in charge.
Suddenly, the apparent strength acquired by No 10 is at risk of becoming a weakness, should the prime minister be absent for weeks to come. As a result, could this experience curb some of the more iconoclastic plans dreamed up by Johnson’s team, such as taking on the civil service? “I think having that institutional expertise, memory and strength now has come in pretty handy,” said one internal critic of those plans. “There is no energy, bandwidth or money for arbitrary institutional changes. All efforts will have to go into getting the economy on its feet again. Many of the battles that were fought now seem pointless.”