The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is deputising for the prime minister

  • The UK government faces questions over a potential power vacuum at the top of government as Boris Johnson, the prime minister, continues to receive intensive care treatment for the coronavirus.
  • Johnson remains in a stable condition and did not require mechanical ventilation overnight.
  • However, it is unclear whether his deputy, Dominic Raab, can make key decisions on the government's coronavirus strategy in his absence.
  • Ministers must decide soon whether to lift or extend the lockdown measures Boris Johnson imposed for three weeks in March ago to slow the spread of the virus.
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The UK government is under growing pressure to explain who is now in charge of the country's response to the coronavirus pandemic as Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains badly ill in intensive care.

The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is officially deputising for Johnson. However, the UK's unwritten constitution and a shaky performance from Raab himself over recent days has thrown the question of who is really in charge of the British government into doubt.

Raab continues to chair meetings in the prime minister's absence and deputising for him "where necessary," Downing Street said, but it is not clear he has the authority to make key decisions in the coming weeks.

Questions to the prime minister's official spokesman and Raab himself over recent days have failed to clarify exactly where power now lies.

On one of the most pressing questions facing the government - how it will exit the national coronavirus lockdown - there have been few answers.

The UK had been due to soon review its lockdown measures after the first three weeks of implementation.

However, Raab on Tuesday was unable to say whether the review would take place, telling a Downing Street press briefing that the government was not yet at the stage where it was reviewing the measures.

"We will take any decision when the time is right based on facts and the scientific or medical advice," he said.

He went on to repeatedly dodge questions about how disagreements between ministers on vital questions of the pandemic response and national security could be resolved in the prime minister's absence.

He insisted that Johnson's Cabinet would remain united, but was vague on how this would happen.

"He's asked me to deputise for him for as long as is necessary, but the normal Cabinet collective responsibility and principles that inform that will apply," Raab told reporters.

"We've got very clear directions, very clear instructions from the Prime Minister, and we're focused with total unity and total resolve on implementing them so that when he's back, I hope in very short order, we will have made the progress that he would expect and that the country would expect," he said.

Raab's position is particularly difficult given that he does not retain the full confidence of some of his colleagues.

"There are those in the Cabinet who find him abrasive," James Forsyth writes in the Spectator magazine on Tuesday.

"One of No. 10's worries about handing over to Raab is that he is the least well-known senior member of the Cabinet. This is a disadvantage at a time when the government is trying to reassure the nation."

The decision to appoint Raab as Johnson's de facto deputy, reportedly went down "like a cup of cold sick," among some colleagues, the magazine has previously reported.

Questions about the emerging power vacuum at the heart of the UK government are increasingly pre-occupying members of Johnson's own party.

"Listening to Micheal Gove on TODAY - it is important to have 100% clarity as to where responsibility for UK national security decisions now lies," Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood tweeted on Tuesday.

"We must anticipate adversaries attempting to exploit any perceived weakness."

Michael Heseltine, who was deputy prime minister under the Conservative prime minister John Major said Raab needed to be given greater clarity about his role.

"There must come a time when a deputy is effectively prime minister," Heseltine told the Telegraph newspaper.

"I don't think we've probably quite got to that now.

"But the present urgency of the situation and the potential decisions that may need to be taken does mean that Dominic Raab will have to use his discretion and know when to act."

Downing Street on Tuesday sought to address these concerns by stating that Raab and the Cabinet would have the ultimate collective authority to take military action without the prime minister's consent.

"In relation to national security matters, the First Secretary of State and the Cabinet have the authority and ability to respond in the prime minister's absence," the prime minister's spokesman said.

The confusion came as Chris Whitty, the UK government's own chief medical officer, spoke out about the government's response to the crisis.

Whitty told a Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday that Britain's failure to introduce mass testing for COVID-19 had been a mistake.

"We all know that Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus, and there's a lot to learn from that," he said.

With Johnson out of the picture, such doubts about the UK's response to this crisis will now surely only grow.

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