In 1830, The Times wrote of the recently departed King George IV: “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”.
This may have been a little harsh on the former Prince Regent. However, many of us would think that these words were highly apposite to the political demise last month of Owen Paterson and this month of Brexit Secretary David Frost, or as he is sometimes known, “Frosty the No-Man“.
A government de-Frosted
The irony is that Frost’s stated reason for resigning has nothing at all to do with Brexit.
He was supporting a group of fundamentalist Tories who oppose Johnson not because he is corrupt, incompetent and damaging, but because he is trying, however inadequately, to implement public health measures against the most serious threat to the nation’s health since the Black Death. And the people in question, ironically described as the “Covid Recovery Group“ try to argue, along other things, that the public should not be compelled to wear masks for the protection of others as this would be an infringement of liberty. The same people have no hesitation in voting for the most Draconian measures ever proposed by a UK government, either in peacetime or wartime. I need hardly remind you of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will in effect make peaceful protests unlawful if the Home Secretary decides he/she does not like them; the Elections Bill which will de facto remove some of the checks and balances in our system, in particular the Electoral Commission; the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which will weaken the power of the courts to challenge the government of the day; and the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will give the Home Secretary the power to take away, without having to give a reason, the UK citizenship of some 5 million dual nationals. All of this is going ahead below the radar, and the public are learning little or nothing of it because of all the attention focused on sleaze.
Is the whole sleaze story, the parties, the Downing St decorations, and the jobs-on-the-side, really a dead cat? Some would say it is, I incline to the view that it is more cock up than conspiracy. After all, what Prime Minister, however craven, would deliberately sacrifice so much political capital unless he has a serious death wish?
Advisors are there to advise
Recently Steve Baker and Joy Morrissey told us that government advisors such as Chris Whitty should not give advice but should say what they are told to say by politicians. Yet Whitty is just articulating in gentle terms what SAGE and the BMA are saying much more forcibly.
I have to ask myself the question: do these Tory zealots really not understand the meaning of the word democracy, or are they just pretending?
After the Frost, the thaw?
In relation to Frost’s departure, I would have liked to be optimistic and see it through the eyes of Tobias Ellwood: ‘An opportunity to press the reset button with the EU’ – particularly over the Northern Ireland Protocol. However such hopes are hanging by a thread.
Any joy we may have felt seeing this man leave the stage was always going to be tempered by the thought of who would replace him. Names like Teresa Villiers and Brexit hard man Steve Baker were at first being suggested. But I wonder how many people expected to see Liz Truss being given the role.
Liz Truss is somebody who already has one of the most onerous jobs in government, as Foreign Secretary, and is jobbing part-time on International Aid, Security, and Women and Equalities. Not to mention that a lot of her time will be taken up on manoeuvres canvassing for the Top Job. And this from somebody who has no positive evidence of diplomatic skills, indeed skills of whatever kind. Quite the reverse: wearing her hat as ‘Wonderwoman Liz Truss’ as the Express called her, she managed to negotiate trade deals around the world which were at best identical to, and in some cases inferior to, those which the UK had as a member of the EU. This week we learned that the Australian deal not only enhances the UK GDP by about 0.0% but that it will almost immediately be introducing unequal competition which will cost UK agriculture and food processing some £300m+. Given that track record, can she expect to argue compellingly and realistically for UK interests vis-a-vis the EU?
She needs to learn – and perhaps will – that in all its negotiations, either on international trade or on the Northern Ireland protocol – the UK has brought a knife to a gunfight. That is what Brexit means. Perhaps she rues the day she walked away from her position of 2016. I wonder on what evidence she chose to take that step?
If for a second you mistake Liz Truss for a woman of judgment and probity, remember that this is the same Liz Truss who as Justice Secretary failed to take effective action against the Daily Mail’s blatant ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, on the grounds that she had no right to criticise the media. She therefore in effect declared open season on the rule of law. The Lord Chief Justice said she had “misunderstood the whole thing completely,” And such a person is to be put in charge of the highly delicate and complicated negotiations on the NI Protocol?
When she opened the batting by reintroducing the threat of Article 16, that did not bode well. She would have done well to say nothing until she had come closer to understanding what Article 16 is.
She does however have one advantage over Frost – when she says, as she will, that the NIP is not fit for purpose, at least nobody will point at her and say that she is the person who negotiated the wretched thing. That will not be enough to turn this into a soluble problem.
Has Liz Truss been given the job by the PM in the hope that she will fail, that she will be holed below the waterline and so no longer constitute a threat to him? After all she is, unaccountably, the darling of the voting Tory membership. Certainly, given Johnson’s track record, it should come as no surprise to see him put the country’s welfare second to his own, but in this case such a strategy is likely to be flawed – there are plenty of other contenders waiting in the wings and it may be that his fate is no longer in his hands.
A deputy with a mission?
Given the other demands on Ms Truss, it seems very likely that most of the heavy lifting – including the meetings with Šefčovič – will be done by her deputy, Chris Heaton-Harris. That may not be good news. From his pedigree we do not have much reason to hope. He is famously Eurosceptic, a former chair of the ERG, a supporter of Andrea Leadsom’s candidacy for leadership, and one of the ministers who resigned in outrage from May’s Brexit team. Worst of all, he was the author of a letter to all university Vice-Chancellors, attempting in effect to root out any anti-Brexit teaching, in other words, teaching of what was the academic consensus. VCs agreed in their response, to treat the request with ridicule. Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, called the letter an act of “idiotic and offensive Leninism”. Heaton-Harris’s superiors at the time were forced in effect to apologise for him and to try to explain that this was some sort of research project, an explanation which he made no effort to confirm.
Such is the person who may now be leading negotiations with the EU.
The fact that his appointment was welcomed by Peter Bone speaks for itself. According to the Express, Bone describes him as a “referee”, which seems – to put it mildly – to totally misunderstand what a negotiator is there for and says something about the imperialistic instincts of their faction. But are we seeing the omens that, like Frost, he will see his EU partners as adversaries to be put in their place? That will certainly lead to massive harm for his country.
Enough is enough
Lastly, leaked WhatsApps from the Spartans of the party are telling us their patience is exhausted. And perhaps for once they are right, enough is enough. Although of course they are right for the wrong reasons. Will BJ even get yet another chance?
It will soon be 2 1/2 years since Boris Johnson became prime minister. It cannot be long before a sufficient number of his MPs wake up to the fact that that is enough.
The author is Chair of Oxford For Europe, and this is an updated version of a blog on the OfE website.