Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and fellow cabinet ministers would be able to take military action without the consent of the prime minister in Boris Johnson’s absence, Downing Street has said.
Mr Johnson is currently in intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital in London after his condition worsened on Monday afternoon – more than a week after he tested positive for coronavirus.
The prime minister’s spokesman said Mr Johnson was “stable” overnight and remains in “good spirits”.
He is being treated with oxygen but is breathing without a ventilator and has not been diagnosed with pneumonia, the spokesman added.
Mr Johnson has asked Mr Raab to deputise for him “where necessary” while he receives critical care.
It has led to questions about how the government will continue to function in the prime minister’s absence.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that Mr Raab, as First Secretary of State, would chair any meeting of the National Security Council – the body that meets to discuss the UK’s national security – should one be required.
It was also confirmed that Mr Raab and the cabinet would have the “authority and ability to respond” to a military threat in Mr Johnson’s absence, including the possible use of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “In relation to national security, the First Secretary of State and cabinet have the authority and ability to respond in the prime minister’s absence.”
However, Mr Raab will not be required to write his own so-called letters of last resort, which are written by every prime minister on entering office.
They are thought to spell out what the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet should do in the event the UK has been struck by a nuclear attack and they are unable to contact the government.
Asked about the letters, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “The prime minister remains the prime minister.”
Mr Raab also does not have the power to hire and fire ministers when deputising for the prime minister, Downing Street added.
Should Mr Raab himself fall ill, then Chancellor Rishi Sunak would be next in line to take over, Mr Johnson’s spokesman confirmed.
The prime minister’s weekly calls with the Queen have been suspended while he remains indisposed.
But his spokesman added that Her Majesty will continue to be kept regularly updated about Mr Johnson’s condition.
On Monday night, Mr Raab said there was an “incredibly strong team spirit” behind Mr Johnson as he prepared to assume some of the prime minister’s duties.
“The government’s business will continue,” the foreign secretary said.
“The prime minister is in safe hands with that brilliant team at St Thomas’ Hospital.
“The focus of the government will continue to be on making sure that the prime minister’s direction – all the plans for making sure that we can defeat coronavirus and can pull the country through this challenge – will be taken forward.”