Robert Jenrick’s judgment lapse is Government’s first real test in Boris Johnson’s absence

Analysis: The Housing Secretary’s visit to his second home during the lockdown means someone must decide whether he should stay or go.

“Torygraph” fails to back Jenrick. But who is in charge during the power vacuum?

By Gordon Rayner, Political Editor 

When Dominic Raab faced questions this week about his authority to order a “change of direction” in Government, he was able to hide behind the fact that the issue was, at that point, largely hypothetical.

Not any more. Robert Jenrick’s decision to drive 150 miles to his second home during the lockdown – and make an 80-mile round trip to his parents’ home – means someone must decide whether he should be fired as Housing Secretary.

Only on Sunday, Scotland’s chief medical officer resigned over an almost identical lapse of judgement after it became clear her position was untenable.

Yet acting prime minister Mr Raab cannot sack the Housing Secretary: he lacks the formal powers vested in the Prime Minister, such as the ability to appoint and sack ministers, creating a power vacuum at the heart of Government as long as Boris Johnson remains in hospital.

Whether Mr Johnson is well enough to be consulted on such matters of State remains unclear.

Despite being moved out of intensive care and onto a general ward, Downing Street appeared to suggest today that he is only communicating using gestures.

It has left the Government facing its first real-life test of how it functions in the absence of its leader.

Mr Raab has not spoken to the Prime Minister for a week. He has said that Mr Johnson left him “very clear instructions” before he was taken into hospital, but those did not, surely, include what to do in the event of a loyal Cabinet minister breaking the Government’s own rules on lockdown, which specifically state that visits to second homes are not acceptable.

Any minister who had ignored the message on staying at home and avoiding non-essential journeys would have been in trouble, but Mr Jenrick’s position is worsened by the fact that he fronted one of the daily Downing Street press conferences to hammer home that very message, before heading to Herefordshire.

For now, at least, No10 says it is backing him. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Jenrick had “complied with the social distancing rules” and had not done anything wrong.

Mr Jenrick will, perhaps, be given the maximum possible leeway by Downing Street.

Mr Jenrick, together with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, were among Mr Johnson’s earliest and most vocal supporters in the Conservative leadership race.

Five days before nominations had even opened last June, they jointly wrote an article in which they said the Tory Party faced an “existential threat” from which only Mr Johnson could save it.

Mr Johnson rewards loyalty – Priti Patel’s unexpected elevation to the post of Home Secretary in his first Cabinet was one of the most overt examples of that – but he can also be ruthless, evidenced by his treatment of Sajid Javid when he effectively forced him out in February.

If Mr Raab had the power to sack people, he would have the unenviable task of trying to weigh up what Mr Johnson would do in such a difficult situation.

The lack of any constitutional role for an acting prime minister means he has no such decision to make, and unless Mr Johnson is well enough to take on such heavy responsibilities right now, the situation could drift on, unresolved, for days.

It comes on top of repeated questions about who will take the eventual decision to ease the current lockdown.

Number 10 has said Mr Johnson is at an “early stage” of his recovery, while his father Stanley said the Prime Minister “must rest up” rather than trying to run the country from his sick bed and that there should be a “period of adjustment” before he returns to work.

According to some medical experts, Mr Johnson may need a full month off work.

There are already signs that the crisis created by Mr Jenrick may be far from over. Downing Street faced enough questions about him in today’s daily lobby briefing to suggest that journalists are not yet satisfied with the answers that have been given, meaning they are still poring over his movements looking for fresh angles to the story.

With the Easter weekend now upon us and Britons impatient to get out and enjoy the sunshine, the dilution of the Government’s “stay home” message could not have come at a worse time.

If the negative headlines continue, the pressure will increase not only on Mr Jenrick, but also on the Government to give Mr Raab a more defined, and more powerful role.