UK's plan B if 'Team Johnson' is incapacitated? Answer is unclear

Britain's constitution offers no clear answer to the question now on many Britons' minds: what happens if Prime Minister Boris Johnson, undergoing tests in hospital after persistent symptoms of coronavirus, cannot continue to lead.

Johnson was admitted to hospital on Sunday in what his office said was a "precautionary step" after testing positive 10 days ago and still suffering from a high temperature. He remains in charge of the government, his office said.

Johnson has said he can keep working from self-isolation in his Downing Street residence, just as his health secretary, Matt Hancock, who also tested positive for the virus, has done.

But the fact that two such crucial leaders in the UK's fight against the pandemic have contracted the disease has raised questions about how the government would function without them at a time of global crisis.

The constitution -- an unwieldy collection of sometimes ancient and contradictory precedents -- offers no clear, formal "Plan B" or succession scenario, experts said.

"We've not been in that kind of situation, we've not had to think about it from that point of view before," Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, told Reuters soon after Johnson was first diagnosed.

Whereas in the United States the vice president steps up if the president dies or becomes incapacitated, Britain has no formal deputy or caretaker prime minister who would take over.

Downing Street has already said, however, that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab would deputise if necessary.

Nor is there any guidance for such circumstances in the Cabinet Manual which sets out the rules and conventions for the running of government, and there is little precedence.

When asked about who would stand in for the prime minister, his spokesman said: "The prime minister has the power to delegate responsibility to any of his ministers, but for now it is the prime minister and then the foreign secretary."

Boris Johnson during the coronavirus outbreak
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Boris Johnson during the coronavirus outbreak
In this handout photo provided by Number 10 Downing Street, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs the morning Covid-19 Meeting remotely after self isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus, at 10 Downing Street, London, Saturday, March 28, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street via AP)
ARCHIVO - En esta fotografía del jueves 2 de abril de 2020, el primer ministro británico Boris Johnson aplaude afuera de su casa en el número 11 de Downing Street para elogiar a los héroes locales que combaten el coronavirus, en Londres. (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street vía AP, archivo)
In this image taken from video of the TWITTER/@BorisJohnson, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks from self isolation which he has been in since contracting coronavirus, Friday April 3, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been admitted to a hospital with the coronavirus. Johnson’s office says he is being admitted for tests because he still has symptoms 10 days after testing positive for the virus. (TWITTER/@BorisJohnson via AP)
In this image taken from video of the TWITTER/@BorisJohnson, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces he has tested positive for the new coronavirus, Friday March 27, 2020. Johnson's office said he was tested after showing mild symptoms and was now self-isolating, but would continue to lead the country's response to COVID-19. (TWITTER/@BorisJohnson via AP)
File photo dated 25/03/2020 of Health Secretary Matt Hancock watching Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, both of them have tested positive for coronavirus.
File photo dated 23/03/2020 of a screen grab of Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation from 10 Downing Street, London. The Prime Minister has said he has tested positive for coronavirus.
File photo dated 20/03/2020 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19), he says he has tested positive for coronavirus.
File photo dated 20/03/2020 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson (centre), Chancellor Rishi Sunak (left) and Dr Jenny Harries (right) speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). The Prime Minister has said he has tested positive for coronavirus.
File photo dated 06/03/20 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Mologic Laboratory in the Bedford technology Park in Bedfordshire, he says he has tested positive for coronavirus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street, London, joining in with a national applause for the NHS to show appreciation for all NHS workers who are helping to fight the Coronavirus.
(EDITOR�S NOTE: Image Archived 25/03/2020) Prime Minister Boris Johnson at one of his daily Downing Street Coronavirus Press Briefings. Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP has tested positive for coronavirus, Downing Street has announced that Mr Johnson has mild symptoms and will self-isolate in Downing Street. He will still be in charge of the government's handling of the crisis, the statement added. (Photo by Keith Mayhew / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, London, for the House of Commons for Prime Minister's Questions.


In June 1953, then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a stroke while in office. His illness was kept so secret that some senior ministers were unaware.

Churchill surprised doctors by recovering to carry on his duties, returning to Downing Street and running the cabinet two months later.

More recently, Tony Blair twice underwent treatment for a heart condition while prime minister in the early 2000s, each time briefly cutting back on his workload for a couple of days.

Officials said that if Blair were to have been incapacitated, his then-deputy John Prescott would have taken over until a new leader was elected.

There is no suggestion Johnson is unable to perform his job. Since his diagnosis, he has carried on leading the government's efforts through the use of teleconferencing.


Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service from January 2012 to September 2014, said Johnson's role was crucial at this time, stressing that visible leadership was essential.

Kerslake, speaking to Sky News last month after Johnson tested positive, said officials would need to know what would happen if senior ministers were unable to do their jobs.

Losing Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who coordinates policy across government, would be a serious blow.

"He is critical to all of this," Kerslake said. "If, for whatever reason, he was ill, who takes over from him?"

Haddon from the Institute for Government said some powers were specifically vested in cabinet ministers, so there was an issue of what happened if they were unavailable.

"If you got to a stage where ... you had secretaries of state who aren't able to perform their functions, then there are question marks about whether junior ministers in their department act on their behalf," she said.

One lawmaker in Johnson's party, who has repeatedly tried to bring in a law to formalise who would replace a prime minister in the event of incapacity, said last month that no one seemed to know what would happen.

"In a national emergency, you don't want to be scrabbling around worrying about who's in charge," Peter Bone told the Mirror newspaper.

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