Even before David Frost’s departure from the government this weekend, Boris Johnson’s authority had for weeks been relentlessly battered by unforced errors and scandal.
However, the resignation of the man regarded by Tory rightwingers as the guarantor of a “clean Brexit” is a devastating blow for the prime minister’s authority – as well as depriving him of a trusted friend and adviser.
Lord Frost’s allies insist that his resignation has nothing to do with Brexit, and instead relates to Johnson’s domestic policy agenda, including the 1.5 percentage point increase in national insurance contributions coming in April, and the commitment to achieving net zero emissions.
“He’s very disillusioned with the policy direction of the government at the moment,” said one source close to Frost. “It’s the No 10, high-tax, high-spend economic philosophy.”
Nevertheless, hardline Brexiters, many of whom were already in open revolt over Covid restrictions, now fear that without Frost around the cabinet table, No 10 may force through a deal with Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol that they would regard as an unacceptable capitulation.
Handing Frost’s portfolio to Liz Truss, alongside her wider responsibilities as foreign secretary, is viewed with trepidation among this group, because while they admire her free-market principles, they regard the Foreign Office as deeply suspect on all things Brexit.
Meanwhile, Frost’s complaints about Johnson’s tax-and-spend approach crystallised some MPs’ mounting concerns about the direction of travel in Downing Street – as well as chiming with the views of potential leadership contenders Truss and Rishi Sunak.
Sunak has let it be known that he would not have gone ahead with the national insurance increase without Johnson’s urging, and Truss is known to have been sceptical about the “plan B” Covid measures that prompted last week’s Tory revolt.
One senior Tory MP suggested Johnson may have deliberately given Truss the knotty job of resolving the impasse over Northern Ireland as a means of undermining her, joking: “Bang go her leadership prospects.”
Backbenchers’ fury about Frost’s resignation burst into the open in a furious WhatsApp exchange leaked to Sky News on Saturday evening. The MP Marcus Fysh described Frost as a “hero” who was “100% right”, while his outspoken colleague Andrew Bridgen claimed that “most” Tory backbenchers shared Frost’s concerns about government policy.
When the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, stepped in to defend the prime minister, in a WhatsApp group called Clean Global Brexit, the MP Steve Baker responded by removing her from the group, saying, “Enough is enough.”
Despite the febrile mood, a leadership challenge to Johnson appears unlikely while the country is in the grip of the Omicron crisis.
While some MPs have already put in their letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, to demand a vote of no confidence, few believe the number is currently anywhere near the 54 required. More than half of Johnson’s MPs – a minimum of 181 – would have to vote against him for a leadership race to be triggered (in which Johnson could not then take part).
While the prime minister may be safe in the immediate term, however, he must now navigate through an intensely difficult period.
The Whitehall ethics guru Sue Gray is investigating lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street; ministers must decide whether to defy Tory rebels and impose Covid restrictions before Christmas; and the local elections in May appear highly likely to provide voters with another opportunity to kick the government, after last week’s extraordinary byelection result in North Shropshire.
Any or all of these events could lead to a handful more letters (or emails) of no confidence being penned, while any potential leadership contender who felt they had a secure head start could urge their followers to submit more en masse.
Meanwhile, Johnson is described by Downing Street insiders as disconsolate and isolated – and his performance in a post-byelection interview on Friday appeared to suggest his only response to partygate is to attempt to change the subject.
One senior Tory described Frost’s departure as “devastating”. “The two men who basically set his ideological and policy position, on Brexit and certainly on the domestic issues, were David Frost and Dominic Cummings. And now he’s lost them both, it’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz,” they said.
“Now the people who were actually doing a lot of the behind the scenes work for him have gone, and you look behind the curtain, and it’s not what we thought. And I think the Tory party’s increasingly come round to that Wizard of Oz view of Boris.”