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Britain's Foreign Secretary Is De Facto Leader While Johnson Is Hospitalized

NOEL KING, HOST:

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now spent two nights in an intensive care unit in London. He was moved to the hospital over the weekend after his COVID-19 symptoms got worse. U.K. Health Minister Edward Argar said this morning there is some room for optimism. Here he is speaking with a radio station called talkRADIO.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARD ARGAR: He is in a stable and comfortable condition. He's in good spirits. As you will have heard yesterday, he had some oxygen given to him, but he's not on a ventilator.

KING: For the moment, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is in charge in the U.K. Katy Balls is on Skype with me this morning. She is the deputy political editor of the British magazine The Spectator. Good morning, Katy.

KATY BALLS: Morning.

KING: How is Boris Johnson doing?

BALLS: As far as we know, he is in a stable condition. We get updates at various points in the day. And ultimately, if there is a change in his condition, we expect to get an update. But for now, he is not requiring the use of a ventilator, and he appears to be breathing on his own.

KING: That sounds like some good news. In the meanwhile, as I said, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has been put in charge. Is that working? How is that working?

BALLS: So I think for now, it's working. But in the U.K., we have a slightly more complicated system when a prime minister can't work in the sense that we currently have a situation where Dominic Raab is the de facto deputy, but he doesn't take on all the responsibilities of the prime minister. So there are some things he can't do which Boris Johnson could do. He needs to make decisions with the approval of his entire cabinet.

Now, in theory, a prime minister should usually get the backing of his ministers, but it doesn't always work like that. So I think it's trickier for Dominic Raab to make strategic decisions. But in terms of the day-to-day running, he's in an OK position to do that.

KING: What options does the British government have if Boris Johnson ends up staying in the hospital for a long time?

BALLS: If he's in the hospital for a long time or even at the hospital but requires time to recover, you would expect Dominic Raab, I think, to be the de facto deputy prime minister for a few weeks, potentially a month or so. But I think if this was a long-term situation, you would potentially have the party try and work out who was the best-placed person to step in. Dominic Raab, as the de facto deputy, is more in a managerial role, delivering outcomes, than someone who is necessarily the new leader.

So I think that if you are looking at a more permanent situation in terms of, you know, a couple of months, you would potentially look at other figures that might be in discussion. But it's obviously very premature to have too much speculation there because I think right now everyone in government is just really hoping the prime minister makes a quick recovery.

And we heard from Dominic Raab in the daily press conference he gives each day or a member of the government does saying that he believes Boris Johnson will be back quickly. Now, that's optimistic, but I think part of the reason for the optimism is it gets quite complicated if the prime minister is not back very quickly.

KING: You know, Katy - well, of course, you know - before the pandemic, Britain was going through Brexit. The terms of the withdrawal were approved by Parliament back in January. Is the withdrawal affecting the response to the pandemic, which I imagine is the thing at the forefront of everyone's mind right now?

BALLS: I don't think, personally, it's having a particularly big impact on the response. There was some confusion a week or so ago about whether the U.K. should have been part of EU efforts for procurement of ventilators. That has been put down to an admin error rather than an ideological one. But the U.K. has been using U.K. industry to build more ventilators.

I think when it comes to Brexit, probably the more prescient issue is whether or not we are going to be leaving the EU, ending the transition period, as we had expected to, you know, at the end of the year because all the signs, I think, suggest it's going to be very hard to have the required negotiations and if coronavirus continues to dominate our lives in the way it has.

KING: The British government - just quickly, before we go - has been very divided, Conservative and Labour. Obviously, there have been big fights. Is everyone kind of rallying at the moment with Boris Johnson so ill?

BALLS: There's definitely been feuding over the past couple of weeks, but I think the prime minister's admission to an ICU unit has been a wake-up call. And actually, we're having quite a rare outbreak of unity in the U.K. in terms of politics.

KING: Katy Balls with The Spectator on Skype. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.