From David Maughan Brown in York: Constitutional conundrum

April 8th The BBC seems to assume that lockdown is having a seriously detrimental effect on the nation’s intelligence.  One reporter this morning announced that fewer than  15,000 Covid tests  are currently being carried out nationally every day, and then considered it necessary to point out that this was “well short of the target of 100,000 a day.’’  Another said that the estimate of the cost of paying the salaries and wages of all those being furloughed under the government’s support scheme up to the end of May was now estimated at between 30 and 40 billion pounds rather than the original £10bn, and then felt it necessary to point out to us that it “could go up even more if the lockdown continues into the summer.”  How could it not go up even further?  I suspect that Alexa is soon going to get irritated with the frequency with which I beg her to switch from Radio 4 to Classic FM.

It is always possible, of course, that the BBC is being kind to us and assuming that our brains will be burned-out from the effort of trying to understand what on earth is supposed to go on in the higher echelons of government when the Prime Minister is temporarily out of action.  Dominic Raab seems to have the same problem when repeatedly asked at news conferences what decision-making powers he has when he stands in for the Prime Minister.  To get the confusion off to a good start we have an obvious contradiction: the Prime Minister is, we are told, primus inter pares – first among equals.  Which obviously means that they aren’t, in fact, ‘equals’.  We wouldn’t be so crude as to appoint a “Deputy” for the Prime Minister – too much like a “Deputy-Sheriff” – and it would make the contradiction even more obvious if he were to be referred to as the second among equals.  So we have a “First Secretary of State”, but carefully avoid having a Second Secretary of State, presumably because that would avoid any confusion as to who should deputise for him (almost always ‘him’?) in his absence.  

We can’t have an Acting Prime-Minister, even when the Prime Minister is absent, because, as an expert in these matters from the Institute for Government tells us: ‘The prime minister remains the prime minister – he’s the one who kissed the hand of the Queen….”  That clears that one up for us then.  Note the lower-case ‘p’s and ‘m’s by way of visual emphasis of the ‘pares’ bit.  But the non-Deputy non-Acting non-prime ‘equal among equals’ who stands in for the Prime Minister can, another constitutional expert tells us, ‘take over the prime minister’s official functions that require the presence of a physical person.’  A ‘physical person’ as distinct, presumably, from a non-physical person.   The mythical primus inter pares is clearly non-physical, but at that point I abandon the struggle to understand, making a mental note as I head for the sanity of the allotment that it could all be made a lot clearer if we were to stoop to having a written constitution. But we obviously don’t want it to be any clearer, or we would have had a written constitution long ago.

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