Boris Johnson delights in promoting able but obscure people, and on becoming Prime Minister made Dominic Raab Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State.
The second title, which meant if the Prime Minister was incapacitated Raab would stand in for him, seemed at the time of no consequence, for Johnson was in robust health.
But now the Prime Minister has been laid low, Raab’s role as his deputy suddenly becomes of the greatest interest.
This unknown figure has a difficult path to tread. If he looks too pleased with himself, he will be accused of getting ideas above his station. If he appears too tentative, people will ask if he is up to the role of deputy, which in many respects is more difficult than that of leader, for it means interpreting with tact and assiduity your chief’s wishes.
A Cabinet colleague said of Raab’s performance in the role so far: “He’s no puppet, far from it, but he is loyal to Boris, keen to ensure we’re all working as one Government, and his style in meetings is consensual and inclusive.”
The minister added that there is a “spirit of amity” between the main figures charged with dealing with the pandemic, but conceded that such a report is “possibly vomit-inducing”, so clearly does it contradict the press’s need, in the absence of other politics, for splits at the heart of government.
A second senior colleague said of Raab: “Dominic is incredibly smart. He’s a really switched on guy. And he doesn’t shy away from difficult decisions. He’s prepared to front up difficult decisions – he has an instinct for doing the right thing or the just thing.”
In the view of this colleague, Raab’s resignation as Brexit Secretary in November 2018, in protest at what he saw as unacceptable concessions over the Irish backstop, showed “moral fortitude” at a time when others “put their principles on the back burner”.
Raab thinks of himself as a man of principle, prepared when necessary to take a lonely stand. But dealing with the pandemic is less a question of principle than of coping under intense time pressure and in the full glare of publicity with a mass of practical problems which at first sight appear so vast, intricate and imponderable as to be insoluble.
A third colleague, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, described Raab as “proper substantial figure. I think he’s a very serious politician. In 20 years’ time people will look back on him as one of the heavyweights of government, and probably a heavyweight for a substantial period.”
But as far as the public is concerned, Raab, like most members of the Cabinet, is unknown, and looks a bit nervy and disconnected as he steps into the spotlight.
Johnson has made, with setbacks which would have driven a less ambitious and resilient figure out of politics, the transition from celebrity to leader.
His ability to connect with the public is one of his trump cards, and one reason why the Conservative Party turned to him: a trust he repaid by winning the recent general election.
Raab does not make that connection. In December, his majority in Esher and Walton, the seat in Surrey which he has held since 2010, fell from 23,298 to 2,743.
In a constituency which in the EU Referendum voted 58 per cent Remain, the Liberal Democrats, already strong in nearby Kingston and Twickenham, mounted an audacious raid against this stern, unbending Brexiteer.
The Labour vote collapsed, the Greens stood aside, and Hugh Grant, Michael Heseltine, Vince Cable and Ian Taylor – this last the Conservative holder of Esher and Walton for the 23 years before Raab – all came to campaign for the Lib Dem candidate.
Raab held on, and must hope the Brexit issue has now been laid to rest. But one may note that in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, admittedly a rather different kind of seat, Johnson increased his majority from 5,034 to 7,210.
It is probably a good thing that Raab is not some inferior imitation of the leader for whom he is standing in.
But who then is Raab? That question is hard to answer.
His father, Peter Raab, was a Jewish refugee who arrived in this country from Czechoslovakia after Munich, at the end of 1938, aged six, and ended up working as a food manager for Marks & Spencer.
Dominic Raab was born in Buckinghamshire in 1974. He was educated at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, and read law at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where he captained the university karate team.
He did further law studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, joined one of the top City firms of solicitors, but transferred soon after to the Foreign Office, where among other assignments he conducted prosecutions for war crimes in The Hague.
He is married to Erika Rey, a Brazilian marketing executive, and they have two children.
In 2006, he became chief of staff to David Davis. Iain Dale, who preceded Raab in that role, has written of him:
“If anything, he’s more hardline than David on Brexit matters – some call him an intellectual version of his former boss. There’s no doubt that he has a brilliant brain and as a lawyer can argue any case put in front of him.”
After entering Parliament in 2010, Raab revealed a talent for giving offence in ways which did not always appear entirely intentional. In a piece for The House in 2011 he wrote: “Feminists are now among the most obnoxious bigots.”
This drew a rebuke in the Commons from Theresa May, at that time Home Secretary and also Minister for Women and Equalities: “I suggest to him that labelling feminists as ‘obnoxious bigots’ is not the way forward.”
In 2012, Raab along with four other members of the Free Enterprise Group – Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss – wrote a book, Britannia Unchained, in which they declared:
“Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
The authors themselves have not been idle, and for the most part have been promoted. In 2015 Raab became a junior Justice minister. May dropped him when she entered Downing Street in 2016, but brought him back to Justice as a Minister of State in 2017, and at the start of 2018 sent him at the same level Housing and Planning.
Although Raab is a strong believer in free markets, he is also a staunch defender of the green belt, which means much to his constituents.
In July 2018, his mentor, David Davis, resigned as Brexit Secretary, and May appointed Raab in his place. But in the middle of November, Raab resigned, in protest at a Brexit deal which was, he believed, a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Six months later, when May stood down, Raab entered the Tory leadership race, declaring himself to be the only prospective leader who could be trusted to get Brexit done. He was knocked out in the second round, in which he received 33 votes, after which he and most of his supporters transferred their allegiance to Johnson.
Making Raab Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State was one way in which Johnson showed that in the perilous battles which lay ahead, he too could be trusted to get Brexit done.
How long ago that fevered period now seems. After winning a majority of 80 in the general election, the Prime Minister got Brexit done and set out to reunite the country behind One Nation policies.
Then came the Coronavirus crisis, producing the desire for a united national response. Johnson adopted a more sombre tone and demonstrated, by appearing day after day with the country’s leading scientific and medical experts, his leadership of a team which is above party politics.
Now that Johnson himself is ill, it falls to Raab to carry on this sombre and united endeavour. The last thing the country wants to see is any outbreak of politicking within the Cabinet while the Prime Minister is incapacitated.
Ministers know that if they do not hang together, they will all hang separately. Raab with his tremendous grasp of detail, his tense but straightforward manner, his touching anxiety to do the right thing, has the qualities needed to be, for the time being, first among equals, and to revive Cabinet government.