David Frost’s resignation has deepened the crisis surrounding Boris Johnson’s leadership and introduced a potentially dangerous element of uncertainty into negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol. The move follows a calamitous few weeks for the prime minister, who faced a revolt last Tuesday from half of his backbenchers over coronavirus restrictions.
Frost cited those restrictions in his resignation letter, which expressed concern about the government’s “current direction of travel” and called for Britain to become “a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy”. He did not mention any differences over Brexit or his mandate in the current round of negotiations with the European Union and his letter and Johnson’s reply gave the impression that their parting was amicable.
Frost’s unhappiness is about Brexit, however, insofar as he believes that the only way that Britain can prosper outside the EU is by cutting taxes and regulation and abandoning the European social model. This view is shared by many veteran Eurosceptics on the libertarian wing of the Conservative party, who also share Frost’s disquiet over coronavirus restrictions.
Johnson’s problem is that the 2016 Brexit referendum was won on a promise of more funding for the National Health Service (NHS) and protection from foreign competition for everyone from fishermen to low-paid workers. He has governed in accordance with this mandate, increasing taxes to spend more on public services and embracing expensive infrastructure projects as part of his “levelling up” agenda.
Frost’s exit comes at a crucial moment in negotiations on the protocol after Britain made an important shift in its position by dropping a demand that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) should be removed from the agreement. News of the change was first briefed out by senior British officials and initially half-denied by Downing Street before Frost confirmed it last Friday when he said he was willing to consider an “interim agreement” to resolve the practical issues surrounding the protocol’s implementation.
Frost said that the issue of governance would have to be addressed in the future as British and EU rules diverged but his European counterpart Maros Sefcovic made clear that he had no mandate to negotiate on the role of the ECJ and was not about to get one. And if Britain and the EU reach an agreement on the customs and regulatory checks and processes that cause most trouble for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, London cannot plausibly invoke Article 16 over the issue of governance.
In choosing Frost’s successor, Johnson must consider where he wants the negotiations to go in the New Year. Hardliners on his backbenches will press for one of their number to take over the Brexit brief but appointing a true believer could simply set Johnson up for another cabinet resignation in a few months.
Giving the job to anyone associated with compromise, such as Michael Gove, would be viewed as a provocation by the hardliners and the prime minister has done enough to antagonise his backbenchers already. The safest choice would be cabinet office minister Steve Barclay, a former Brexit secretary who is well-regarded by his fellow-Brexiteers but has none of Frost’s wild-eyed zeal.
Rejoicing in Brussels and Dublin over Frost’s departure may be misplaced because none of his likely successors will enjoy the same confidence among hardcore Brexiteers or such authority to persuade them to accept further compromises.