3

On April 19th, the Sunday Times accused Boris Johnson of missing five meetings of Cobra, the national crisis committee:

Unusually, Boris Johnson had been absent from Cobra. The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.

Johnson went on to miss four further Cobra meetings on the [COVID-19] virus. As Britain was hit by unprecedented flooding, he completed the EU withdrawal, reshuffled his cabinet and then went away to the grace-and-favour country retreat at Chevening where he spent most of the two weeks over half-term with his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds.

The government then published a rebuttal (see related question) later that day, which stated:

Claim - It was unusual for the Prime Minister to be absent from COBR and is normally chaired by the Prime Minister.

Response - This is wrong. It is entirely normal and proper for COBR to be chaired by the relevant Secretary of State. Then Health Secretary Alan Johnson chaired COBR in 2009 during H1N1. Michael Gove chaired COBR as part of No Deal planning. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps chaired COBR during the collapse of Thomas Cook. Mr Hancock was in constant communication with the PM throughout this period.

This response doesn't seem to answer the point about whether it is unusual for the PM to be absent, just that it is often chaired by the relevant Secretary of State. Is the absence of the PM from Cobra meetings common? For example, in the cases noted in the government's response, was the PM present at those Cobra meetings? Perhaps the government has left unsaid that if the PM had been present, he would automatically have been chairing the meeting due to seniority?

  • 2
    Institute of government covers this tangentially. PM not always in attendence, but meeting is a way of showing they're doing something, or giving a "kick up the backside". Certainly it seems the PM would usually attend at least the initial meeting about a given crisis. – Jontia Apr 20 at 10:06
  • 1
    By the way, part of the rebuttal has been rebutted by one person it mentions, Lancet editor Richard Horton twitter.com/richardhorton1/status/1252183975893884933 – Lag Apr 20 at 14:53
1

Is it normal for the Prime Minister to be absent from Cobra meetings?

Normal

It seems to be normal, insofar as previous prime ministers have not attended all meetings.


2002

For example The Guardian, 2002-10-21:

What is Cobra?

Tony Blair has convened emergency committee Cobra to deal with the impending strike by firefighters. Joey Gardiner explains what the committee does and what power it wields

Who is meeting today?

Downing Street officials were this morning firmly denying reports that Mr Blair would chair the meeting. It is thought more likely the fire service minister, Nick Raynsford, will lead the meeting.


2017

According to BFBS (Forces.net) 2017-06-04

Does the Prime Minister always chair COBRA meetings?

No, other members of the Cabinet or senior ministers can lead the meetings when appropriate. But the decision by Mrs May to chair this meeting is an indication of the severity of the incident and a sign that she wants to personally lead the Government's response.

So the PMs absence can be construed as an indication that senior ministers have sufficient authority to manage the response to the incident or that the incident is not yet severe enough to require the attendance of the prime minister.


Foundation

Other sources discuss the foundation of COBRA

By the late 1960s thought was being given to setting up a new facility which was referred to by various titles such as the Whitehall Situation Centre and the Central Operations Room. In a 1971 report its main purpose was said to be “…to enable the government to co-ordinate executive action to the requirements of NATO” which implies a war role however, at this time, which was one of considerable industrial unrest, it was suggested that it would also “fulfil a useful function in relation to civil emergencies…”.

By the 1980s COBR had become the term for both the facility and the Cabinet Committee consisting of senior ministers and representatives from relevant central government departments which would co-ordinate the Government’s response to any crisis.

In that document I can find no specific mention that the committees dealing with civil emergencies were expected to be chaired by the Prime Minister.


Not Usual

It may be normal but not be usual.

| improve this answer | |
2

So far as I'm aware, the Government does not release information about when and why COBR has been covened or who attended (FOIA answer) - unless of course the Government wants the public to know. Therefore none of the public can know whether it is normal for someone to be present - we don't have the numbers.

However, on 19 April 2020 someone made a Freedom of Information Act request on this very subject, asking for the total numbers of times COBR was convened under Brown, Cameron, May and Johnson respectively and how many times each PM was in attendance.

The Government's rebuttal does not deny (or mention) the Sunday Times' claim that there were five COBR meetings about Covid-19 that Johnson did not attend.

[edit at 11 May 2020] There has been a response to the FOIA request referred to above. It states that the Cabinet Office is unable to comply with the request because the estimated cost of doing so would "exceed the appropriate limit" (£600). It suggests refining the request to reduce the estimated cost.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Anecdotally, the New European has David King saying Blair and Brown were basically at every meeting of COBR. – Jontia Apr 20 at 15:49
  • 1
    Thanks for the update, shame the response was lacking! – CDJB May 11 at 20:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .