Andrew McKie: Frost’s departure is likely to lead to a Tory cold front

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Lord Frost’s nipping off and goes … Boris Johnson may be warbling to himself, to the tune of The Christmas Song, by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé. Or perhaps not, since Mrs Johnson will have vetoed the open fire on environmental grounds, and the departure of David, Lord Frost of Allenton in the County of Derbyshire, CMG, as Minister of State in the Cabinet Office and Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe is distinctly disobliging.

We can assume as much if we believe reports that the Prime Minister begged Lord Frost to put off handing in his notice until January, since he is getting battered with quite a lot of other bad news at the moment.

There was the result in North Shropshire (the Tories’ second-worst showing in a by-election since the war, beaten only by Christchurch in 1993). The public fury at the apparently constant stream of parties in and around Downing Street this time last year. And the fact that, as Omicron case numbers skyrocket – even if hospitalisation numbers haven’t yet followed suit – half the country wants more restrictions pronto, and the other half doesn’t, and won’t wear them.

Inconveniently for Mr Johnson, his own backbenchers think he’s dithering, if not clueless, about the direction in which he wants to take his party and the country. To the extent that they can identify things he does seem to like, they seem to be ones that the majority of the Conservative party doesn’t.

Against that background, it’s interesting that Lord Frost’s resignation letter doesn’t have much to say about his primary responsibilities – which have been sorting out the continued friction with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol which he himself negotiated. Indeed, unless you’re reading between the lines (as you may feel you’re entitled to) with a strong awareness of the strict definition of irony – conveying your message with words whose literal meaning is the opposite of what they say – it doesn’t say anything about the ECJ or Article 16 or cross-border tariffs, regulations and all the other red tape in which the noble lord has been tied up for two years.

“Brexit is now secure,” he declares, a good deal more bullishly than he may feel. Well, up to a point, my Lord, to use the form of words employed in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop to mean “No.” Lord Frost did secure Brexit, in the sense that he got it over the line (and in the process proved quite a lot of people wrong). But it’s hardly rock-solid.

He did get rid of the backstop that couldn’t be got rid of, and avoided a “Brino” (Brexit In Name Only) that would have meant continued compliance with EU regulations in domestic law. He got a trade deal without accepting the supremacy of EU law. He saw off Michel Barnier, then got round many of the difficulties of the Northern Ireland Protocol with the UK Internal Market Act. All of this, viewed from the point of Mr Johnson’s self-interest (never a small consideration), essentially got the Prime Minister his job and sizeable majority.

And there are some who argue that Lord Frost had a fairish plan for sorting out the remaining problems with the Protocol: EU concessions earlier this year, when they seemed to take threats to invoke Article 16 seriously, suggest that a solution could have been found which, if not eradicating the issue, might have minimised deliberate, politically motivated, obstructions. We’ll never know, because, if you accept Dominic Cummings’ account, Mr Johnson wouldn’t back this plan, preferring to avoid a row.

While Mr Cummings is obviously grinding away at an axe that makes Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox look like small fry, there’s no particular reason not to believe him. Mr Johnson, as well as being shy of decision-making, tends to run from conflict like a scalded cat, and is notably chary of facing down opposition. Or frit, as Mrs Thatcher, and her current disciples on his backbenches, might put it.

But Lord Frost, the PM’s special advisor when he was at the Foreign Office and until now one of Mr Johnson’s staunchest allies, abridges all this into the sentence: “You know my concerns about the direction of travel.” He goes on to suggest that this is about promoting free trade and lower taxes, and avoiding excessive and ill-evidenced Covid restrictions – concerns, in other words, at the forefront of many Tories’ minds.

Some of them are interested in what’s happening in Ireland though, as ever, far fewer than you would expect in a self-declared Unionist party, with many of those seeing it though the lens of Brexit, rather than the UK. But far more are concerned about the public’s patience with restrictions on their liberty, alarmed by the government’s readiness to spend as if there were no tomorrow, terrified of inflation and furious about the reversal of manifesto promises that there would be no tax rises.

That’s what you might call the post-Thatcherite wing of the party: big on low spending, low intervention, small government, and individual liberty. Despite his previous career as a diplomat, in his more recent incarnation as a practising politician, that seems to be the group with which Lord Frost is most comfortably aligned.

The Prime Minister, however, has always liked the idea of spending money on big projects, even when they weren’t bridges that everyone else thought were total non-starters. He had an incentive, in the form of pleasing the new Red Wall voters and protecting the MPs they elected. Many might argue that “levelling up” is, in itself, long overdue, highly desirable and the right thing to do, in any case.

And crucially, though he can hardly have wanted it, he had plausible cover, in the economic realities imposed by the pandemic. Any government would have to spend an incredible amount of money to deal with this: why not shove it where it will do infrastructure (and Tory election prospects) the most good?

Well, one reason is the opinion of Lord Frost and those who share his scepticism. They warmed to Mr Johnson, despite his deviations from free-market and socially liberal positions, because they trusted his underlying instincts and – much more important – the fact that he was a winner. That relationship looks a lot chillier now.

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