With effect from 1 March 2021 the newly-ennobled Lord David Frost stepped into the role of UK Chair of the Partnership Council. He therefore enters the Cabinet, and becomes yet another ‘unelected bureaucrat’ at the centre of power. He is there to preside over a difficult new round of negotiations at a time when ministers would have had you believe that negotiations on Brexit are complete.
Lord Frost said:
“I am hugely honoured to have been appointed minister to take forward our relationship with the EU after Brexit. In doing so, I stand on the shoulders of giants and particularly those of Michael Gove, who did an extraordinary job for this country in talks with EU over the past year.”
However, the highly respected Sir Ivan Rogers puts it:
“There is still an expectation of ‘well they can’t really have wanted that’ and ‘they can’t really have realised that this was the true implication for our sector so if we go and lobby them now and demonstrate to them what’s happening on the ground as a consequence of the deal they negotiated, they must want to rejig it, refine it, and reopen the negotiation in 2021’. I suppose in shorthand my advice is: don’t believe it guys. We are where we are. There’s no new negotiation to be had. There’s no appetite on either side of the table to reopen it. I don’t think that’s where David Frost or his boss will be or will want to be. I think that you should get on with life and face the shock.”
What are we to make of that?
The reverse Midas Touch
King Midas of Phrygia had the unusual talent that everything he touched turned into gold. There are some very special people who are equally talented, who can touch gold and watch it turn into ordure. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is exactly the Touch of Frost. Think back to the height of Cool Britannia, or say the Summer Olympics of 2012.
See how UK of today is transformed. Huge cross-sections of the community, from musicians to pig farmers to fashion designers to dealers in European stocks and shares, are facing existential threat. That is even without mentioning the blighted fishing industry or the instability in Northern Ireland. I will not go into details because it is well documented elsewhere, including in the Davis Downside Dossier, and on Oxford for Europe’s Facts about Brexit Facebook page. There are some touching individual stories told by the European Movement.
Was all this entirely David Frost‘s fault? Of course not, he was negotiating within parameters laid down by his boss and sponsor, Boris Johnson, and under pressure from the likes of the ERG. However he did so with enthusiasm and if anything exceeded his brief. He indulged in sabre rattling about how the UK could cope with a no deal Brexit, totally in defiance of all the evidence. Massive amounts of time, energy, and negotiating capital were expended in the course of last year over sovereignty and fish, despite the fact that right now, March 2021, the UK is in a vastly worse place in both these areas than it was before. This focus on irrelevant detail left the broader picture severely neglected. The service sector, 80% of the economy, was deliberately thrown under the bus. The gross miscalculation over regulations covering shellfish – now admitted by government – is only one example among many of how negotiations were carried out without a clear understanding of the issues. And on matters like freedom of movement for creatives and mutual recognition of qualifications, either no thought at all was given or the position Frost took was deliberately perverse. At every opportunity his default position was to achieve maximal divergence from the EU, even at immeasurable cost to UK citizens and businesses. And yet we are left with an agreement which sets a high economic price if the freedom to diverge is exercised. Foreseeably the EU is left holding the whip hand. ‘This is not what we voted for!’ say most of the 17.4 million. And it most certainly was not what the rest of us voted for.
Because negotiations were entered into in a confrontational rather than a cooperative way, with Frost almost deliberately cultivating a distrust in his opposite numbers, they dragged on until the last minute, leaving no time between agreement and implementation. Not surprisingly we are now seeing what happens when businesses have massive layers of bureaucracy imposed upon them without time to prepare. A lot of the paperwork which they are being given by the government itself is not fit for purpose, and UK businesses and their European customers are paying the price. Many of them do not have the resilience to come back from this catastrophe, even if these are indeed, as the government implausibly claims, just ‘teething problems’.
A lot of that can be laid at Frost’s door. He has just negotiated a deal which is widely seen as not fit for purpose. He has helped turn Brexit, which was always going to be painful, into something even worse, and the UK simultaneously into both an economic basket case and a rogue state. To put the icing on the cake, we hear from Dominic Raab that things will be fine ‘if you take a ten year view’. I never saw that on the side of the bus.
Yet Frost wears this outcome, which should be a humiliation, as a badge of pride, and he has been praised and rewarded for it.
The great Frost
Frost, ‘Frosty’ to his friends, and ‘The Great Frost’ to those who have experience of his manner, appears to be a personal choice of the PM. They have known each other since their Brussels days, a time when BJ the journalist became bored and decided to amuse himself by throwing live grenades over the fence at Brussels bureaucracy, and Frost, despite his background as a ‘diplomat’, started to turn into a Eurosceptic. He has now been appointed with a mission – playing hardball with the Europeans. Perhaps there was a perception that Michael Gove had gone native and had become too chummy with his European opposite number, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. That Gove was too soft may come as a surprise, bearing in mind that it was the same Michael Gove who wrote a letter to the Commission demanding a two year extension to the implementation of parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, with veiled threats when he must have known that this government has little left to threaten the EU with. And of course a two year extension is precisely what the government could have asked for last June but adamantly refused to do so despite being warned of the dire consequences. Do these people have no sense of irony? Do they not reflect on how their bluster will be received by the other side? A lot less favourably than by the target audience, the ERG.
This is today’s reality, the kind of UK which Johnson and Frost will feel proud to leave as their legacy. Almost unique in being outside every significant European institution and totally unique in being there by choice.
In being elevated to his new role, Frost is following in the footsteps of other surprising choices by the Prime Minister, including Dominic Cummings and Tony Abbott. He will find himself in good company in a Cabinet, many of whose members seem to rejoice in a combination of intransigence and ineptitude. ‘Shoulders of giants’ indeed! As Ivan Rogers says, his appointment signals a willingness by government to distance itself further from compromise, and a state of denial over the howls of pain experienced right across the country over the damage caused by Brexit. The signal to the EU appears to be ‘not an inch’. And recent lack of progress in negotiations reflects that.
To any informed, or even casual, observer, it must be increasingly clear that the ultimate goal of the UK government is some kind of ‘Singapore on Thames’, a neighbour of the EU whose agenda is to compete aggressively with it. That is not a good place from which to enter negotiations on equivalence for the City of London, where a memorandum of understanding is expected in about the next month.
Unless there is a change in direction, there are few people who think the EU will make many concessions on equivalence. Indeed the City of London may well finish up worse placed then New York or Tokyo, not through lack of probity on the EU’s part, but through lack of trust. The flight of business from the City will accelerate, and that will of course not only hurt those who work there but also the British tax payer. And the transformed economic climate will go hand in hand with poisoned relations with all our nearest neighbours. There is talk of a new Cold War. Frosty is indeed the word.
Media – what media?
At a time like this, perhaps one of the most disappointing things is how little interest the mainstream media have taken. With a few honourable exceptions, the press have ignored the problem, or tried to shift the blame to what they see as the ‘Evil Europeans’. The BBC has turned into the government’s lapdog. With the exception of the SNP – who now of course have their own problems – the opposition parties have tried to pretend that Brexit is history. And predictably the pandemic is being used as a smokescreen, with the Tories gaining vaccine-fuelled points in the opinion polls, despite the fact that their performance in almost every other respect has been dismal.
So it is up to us ordinary citizens to make up the ground. The Tories need to know that they will be held accountable for what they have done to the country, and the opposition parties need to feel a duty to oppose, both for the good of the country and also out of enlightened self-interest.
We need to build on the fact that an increasing share of the public (about 50% vs 40%) now see Brexit as a mistake.
Update (4 March 2021):
Three days into Frost’s tenure, the British government has once again threatened to break international law by deciding unilaterally to extend the grace period in relation to trade with Northern Ireland. This highlights their intention to honour the Northern Ireland protocol only where it suits them and is bound to sour relations with the EU even further.
Ed: This is an updated version of an article which was originally published on the Oxford for Europe website. The views are the author’s own.