David Frost’s resignation deepened the crisis surrounding the leadership of Boris Johnson and introduced a potentially dangerous element of uncertainty into the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The move comes on the heels of a disastrous few weeks for the prime minister, who faced a rebellion last Tuesday from half of his vice presidents over coronavirus restrictions.
These restrictions were cited by Frost in his resignation letter, in which he expressed concern about the government’s «current trend of travel» and called on Britain to become a «lightweight, low-tax, orderly business economy». He did not mention any disagreements over Brexit or its mandate in the current round of negotiations with the EU, and his letter and Johnson’s response gave the impression that their parting was amicable.
Frost’s dissatisfaction has to do with Brexit, insofar as he believes that the only way Britain can thrive outside the EU is to cut taxes and regulation and abandon the European social model. This view is shared by many seasoned European skeptics in the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, who also share Frost’s concern about coronavirus restrictions.
Johnson’s problem is that the 2016 Brexit referendum was won on the promise of more funding for the National Health Service (NHS) and protection from foreign competition for everyone from fishermen to low-wage workers. He has governed with this mandate, raising taxes to increase spending on public services and incubating expensive infrastructure projects as part of his «scaling up» agenda.
Frost’s exit comes at a crucial moment in negotiations over the protocol after Britain made an important shift in position by dropping a demand that the European Court of Justice be removed from the agreement. News of the change was first briefed by senior British officials and initially half rejected by Downing Street before Frost confirmed last Friday when he said he was willing to consider an «interim agreement» to resolve practical issues related to implementation of the protocol.
Frost said the issue of governance must be addressed in the future because British and European rules are divergent, but his European counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, made clear he did not have a mandate to negotiate the role of the European Court of Justice and was not about to get it. And if Britain and the EU reach an agreement on customs and regulatory controls and processes that are causing the most trouble for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, then London cannot reasonably invoke Article 16 on the issue of governance.
When choosing a successor to Frost, Johnson must consider where he wants the negotiations to go in the new year. Hardliners will press his back benches for someone to take charge of Brexit, but the appointment of a true believer could simply lead to another Cabinet resignation in a few months.
Giving the job to anyone associated with a compromise, such as Michael Gove, would be seen as a provocation by hard-liners, and the prime minister has done enough to antagonize his deputies already. The safest option would be Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay, the former Brexit Secretary who is respected by fellow Brexiteers but has no enthusiasm for Frost.
The jubilation in Brussels and Dublin over Frost’s departure may be misplaced because none of his potential successors will have the same confidence among Brexit supporters or such power to persuade them to accept more concessions.