Designated Survivor UK: What Happens if the British Government is Wiped Out?

By James O Malley on at

24 star Kiefer Sutherland is back, and has once again been caught up in a maelstrom of explosions, tense drama and political intrigue. But this time he has taken a desk job. In Designated Survivor, which premiered last week on Netflix in the UK, Sutherland plays a no-name cabinet member who, after a catastrophic attack on the US Congress is the highest-ranking official left alive. In an instant, he becomes President of the United States.

It’s an exciting premise, and if the pilot episode is anything to go by it looks set to be the new show this year to watch. And this got us wondering what would happen if the show took place in Britain? In the US, there are detailed “continuity of government” plans, and the line of succession in enshrined in law. But what about us?

To find out I spoke to Dr Jonathan Eyal, the international director at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). I started by asking the obvious: Do we have a plan? Do we have a formal continuity procedure like the Americans do?

“The simple answer is that we don't have procedures in place, not in a formal sense”, he tells me. If the prime minister were to, say, disappear then it would be up to the ruling party to the suggest to the Queen who should be appointed prime minister. Sounds simple, right? But this isn’t a quick process – and Dr Eyal reckons it is getting slower because all of the major parties tend to pick leaders through long leadership elections with party membership, rather than have MPs decide.

So what happens in an emergency? What if, say, in a rough equivalent to Designated Survivor, that Parliament was attacked during the State Opening? In the US, the Constitution and other laws spell out that the Vice President is next in line, followed by the Speaker of the House – and this line of succession works its way all the way down to the Secretary for Agriculture and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Kiefer Sutherland’s character in the show). Even the Postmaster-General was on the list at one point in history.

“Unlike that, Britain doesn't have a written constitution and has no system at all. More to the point it was clarified in 2010 when we had a coalition government [...] that the post of deputy prime minister does not mean that you become prime minister if the prime minister dies.”

This is because the Deputy PM - most recently Nick Clegg - can conceivably be from a different party to the PM.

Dr Eyal explains that the “official” situation is that only succession in the monarchy is written into law, but “unofficially” he thinks that there is almost certainly a list of who gets to be in charge of the British government in an emergency.

He explains that these procedures were last debated in Parliament in 2012 – though the government wasn’t very keen to talk about them. He does have a theory about how these procedures are figured out though. It’s well known that when a new prime minister enters Downing Street for the first time they are given details on Britain’s nuclear defences and are asked to write a “Letter of Last Resort”, offering some final instructions to what our submarines should do in the event that the British government is completely wiped out.

He suspects that it is probably at this same point that the incoming PM is also told about the secret line of succession. He also suspects that the list would probably start with the Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer, but also work its way quite far down the cabinet ranks, because the people planning for such an eventuality would have to assume that a catastrophic attack could also wipe out half the Cabinet.

Unlike the United States though, whoever does end up calling the shots does not take charge permanently: they would only be in charge for the strictly minimum period of time before the party is able to elect a new leader officially.

So the way that Britain and America do it are rather different. But is our secrecy really a good idea? I asked Dr Eyal if he thought that the fact that our procedures are secret could undermine the legitimacy of a new temporary leader in crisis, as it won’t be clear why they have taken charge. Would that cause problems?

“No, because it is assumed that this would be for just a short period of time”, he explains. “We are not likely to get wars like the First World War or the Second World War where it starts and it just goes on and on for years. It's not going to be over in 5 minutes, but clearly the critical element will be to respond to an immediate crisis at a time when a prime minister may be dead or killed or whatever.”

He goes on to explain that legitimacy would only become an issue if the acting prime minister was in place for a long time. But this isn’t to say it would be entirely unproblematic. The ambiguity about succession could mean that Britain’s enemies might believe that it can take us out entirely simply by “decapitating” the leadership – and it could cause some confusion internally in government about who is calling the shots. Dr Eyal speculates that the emergency procedures have plans in place for broadcasting news of who is in charge to solve this problem – but he also wonders if it could be weird for the public.

“By definition it is only a small group of people who would know what the procedure is, and a lot of others will simply be told all of a sudden that, [for example] Boris Johnson is now the prime minister. [...] In terms of Continuity of Government it would work but in terms of the public image [...] it could be odd.”

So that’s what would happen in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic attack in Britain. But what about the weeks and months that follow? That appears to be the story that Designated Survivor plans to tell. And it is in the aftermath that Dr Eyal believes that the British system might be at an advantage because we can more easily pass emergency laws. “Some of the emergency legislation [already] exists on the books allowing a British government to impose fairly draconian regulations, order things to close down, and more or less do what they want”, he explains.

And what about government services? If our political leadership is taken out, will everything just breakdown? Will hospitals close because government stops sending them money? Or can they run themselves?

The good news is that if we do face a catastrophe, Britain is relatively well placed to deal with it because of our strong governmental institutions.

“I think ensuring supplies would be the critical element but otherwise from experience British government institutions are pretty good at responding to unforeseen immediate crises”, Dr Eyal says, “If your governance is pretty good then government departments can go on automatically for some time. “[It would be] less the question of government departments getting commands and more a question of whether they will have the resources to do what they need to do. But if the resources are in then I think you'll find that these government departments can more or less run themselves with civil servants for a long period of time without politicians being active on the ground.”

Phew! That’s slightly reassuring at least.

So is Britain equipped to cope with a Designated Survivor type catastrophe? Who would Sutherland’s President Kirkman call if Britain was attacked too? The good news is that we do appear to have plans in place. But the bad news? Outside of a very tight inner circle, it appears that nobody knows exactly who would be in charge once the bombs start dropping. As Dr Eyal told me, “in a classic British way, why be open when you can be obscure?”