Leadership, Jim, but not as we know it with Captain Raab on bridge

John Crace
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s now all down to a matter of trust. Last June, the Conservative party decided it didn’t rate Dominic Raab highly enough for him to even make the last five of the leadership contest. Imagine the humiliation of being considered to have less credibility than Michael Gove.

Yet now, with Boris Johnson in intensive care, Raab is the interim leader of the country at a time of national emergency. “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” The answer for most of us is a resounding “no”. We don’t feel in the slightest bit lucky, thank you.

Neither, it seems, does Raab. The gap between vaulting ambition and practical reality has never seemed so wide. When he looks in the mirror, Dom no longer sees the decisive man of action he has always imagined himself to be. Rather he just gazes at uncertainty and hesitancy.

The crown weighs far more heavily than he had ever anticipated. He can’t even trust himself these days. The day before, he had insisted Boris was on top form and running the country from his hospital bed. Just three hours later, we were told the prime minister had been moved to intensive care.

In the meantime, the Govester doesn’t even trust Dom to make the coffee at cabinet meetings

It’s hard to come back from that. Either the foreign secretary had been kept out of the loop about Boris’s state of health or he had lied to the country. Neither of which was a good look for the man whose prime responsibility was to bring a sense of reassurance and stability to a country worried about the health of its leader.

Boris might not be everyone’s idea of a national Daddy, but he’s the only Daddy we’ve got and no one wants to lose their Dad. It’s as primal and terrifying as that. The country hasn’t felt this anxious and unsettled in decades.

Raab didn’t look quite as sweaty and edgy on Tuesday as he had the day before: instead, the panic resided entirely in his eyes that darted this way and that, avoiding direct contact with everyone. He started by getting to the question everyone wanted answered. The prime minister had been stable overnight, was receiving the best care and had needed no invasive ventilation. Good news.

“I’m confident he’ll pull through,” he said. “He’s a fighter.” Cue a collective groan of despair. We were back in the mythology of plucky Brits single-handedly taking on the Hun. Fighting the coronavirus on the beaches and in the hedgerows.

We’re not in a war. We’re in a pandemic. The two things are totally different. And the many thousands who have already died from the disease did not do so because they were too weak or didn’t fight hard enough. They died because they were too ill to live and there was nothing the doctors could do to save them.

The foreign secretary was no more convincing on who actually was running the country in Boris’s absence. “Government has always worked on collective responsibility,” he said casually.

Er, yes. Except the buck has always stopped with the prime minister. Now it seemed the buck stopped nowhere. All that was happening was that the entire cabinet was gathering round a crystal ball, while trying to channel the inner spirit of Boris.

And what was coming back was presumably total gibberish, as it’s been well documented that in the week Boris was in isolation in Downing Street the entire cabinet was squabbling like rats in a sack. Some have never even left the sack. Despite being home secretary, Priti Patel has never been allowed anywhere near a No 10 press briefing. Small mercies, I suppose.

In the meantime, the Govester doesn’t even trust Dom to make the coffee at cabinet meetings. God knows what would happen if there was another serious emergency, such as floods or a terrorist attack. The entire cabinet would be briefing against each other, with each person having a different idea of what Boris would really have wanted. Presumably Mikey and Dom have already arm-wrestled one another for possession of the nuclear button. It’s leadership, Jim, but not as we know it.

Nor did persistent questioning from the media about who really was in charge result in any more clarity. Everyone was just getting on and doing what Boris would have wanted, even though the circumstances might since have changed.

All that did become clear was that Raab’s idea of collective responsibility was every man and woman for themselves. Asked about the government’s commitment to 100,000 tests by the end of the month, Dom casually threw Matt Hancock, the health sercretary, under the wheels of a bus. Nothing to go with me, Guv. Ask Tigger.

The only person to really level with the country was the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty. Thank goodness, he’s back. After the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance had observed that the UK’s death rates were broadly in line with Italy, Spain and France, Whitty alone dared to comment on why Germany’s might be so much lower.

Testing, testing, testing. The Germans had taken the coronavirus more seriously at a much earlier stage than other countries and had planned accordingly. The UK was paying the price for its government having been too slow to act.

There was one adult in Downing Street, then. Just a shame he’s not in the cabinet. Still, perhaps after Wednesday morning’s fantasy football “What would Boris do next?” cabinet meeting, one minister will be available to tell us who really is running the country while the prime minister recovers in hospital.