On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved into an intensive care unit after his coronavirus symptoms worsened. Johnson, who secured his premiership last December with a landslide victory for the Conservative Party, ran on a populist and pro-Brexit platform. As coronavirus started to spread in the country, Johnson initially opposed lockdown-type measures suggesting that a speedy spread of the virus would create “herd immunity.”
Alexandra Cirone, professor in Cornell University’s department of government and an expert in European politics, says that Johnson’s worsening condition poses the question of what an emergency leadership selection would look like for U.K.’s Conservative Party.
“This high-profile hospitalization comes after a wave of politicians have also been diagnosed with COVID-19, including the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the French Minister of Culture Franck Riester, and at least 24 members of the Iranian parliament. However, Boris Johnson’s case is notable because his government was slow to act in response to COVID-19. He seemed to ignore expert evidence on mitigating the pandemic using lockdown and social distancing measures, in favor of a misguided ‘herd immunity’ approach.
“Politicians are arguably at risk — leaders work long hours (particularly during a crisis), come in contact with a wide range of constituents, and sometimes lead unhealthy lifestyles. Yet these and other high-profile cases demonstrate, among other things, that no one is immune from the virus, and that every single government should be taking drastic measures to slow the spread.
“Note that in the event a U.K. prime minister dies in office, there is no written order of succession. They are not succeeded by the deputy prime minister (as the vice president would, in the case of the U.S.). Instead, the queen would need to appoint a replacement prime minister, from a choice of candidates (ideally one) submitted by the governing party.
“If the Conservative Party can ensure a clear-cut emergency leadership selection, then the government could better adapt; however, the choice is not obvious. Dominic Raab is the deputy prime minister, but there are other prominent ministers who could also fill the position. Citizens, on the other hand, either don’t know or surprisingly seem to support the newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Given the crisis, the Conservative Party would be well served to ensure that any emergency leadership selection is efficient and uncontroversial.”