David Frost’s Conservative fans have welcomed the European Commission’s proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol as evidence of the success of his tough negotiating style. Former party leader Ian Duncan Smith said in the Daily Telegraph that Frost showed the EU understood the language of specific power.
“He learned vital lessons from our experience in previous negotiations, when EU officials punched and laughed their sleeves when we signed their terms. The most important component of the EU’s response to yesterday’s British proposals was not the details, but the fact that we are now in the process of renegotiating – something Frost’s critics said it would never happen.”
But Duncan Smith, who traveled with every other Tory MPs through the Westminster Lobby to vote on the protocol less than two years ago, warned Frost against trying to negotiate a series of easements and exceptions.
“The EU wants nothing more than to cling to the idea that the protocol, as originally agreed, is still fundamentally sound. If it goes down this road it will leave us fettered by complex EU law and ultimately judged by the European Court of Justice, no matter what form it takes. The jury placed under it,” he said.
Lots of accusations
By introducing such a sweeping easement of how the Protocol would operate, the Commission exposed itself to the charge that, if such changes were possible within the Convention, it should have brought it before it. It also risks that the daring Frost will simply take the concessions and try to grab more, before he collapses negotiations on the question of the European Court of Justice’s role in adjudicating how the EU’s single market rules should be applied in Northern Ireland.
In his Lisbon speech on Tuesday, Frost complained about repeated EU accusations that Britain, which introduced legislation last year to scrap the protocol, was a bad faith negotiator. A few hours later, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, tweeted that the British government had never intended to implement the protocol.
Cummings said they agreed to the protocol in October 2019 in order to get the Brexit deal done, but were always planning to “give away the parts we didn’t like” after winning the general election two months later. Cummings acquitted Johnson of lying on the grounds that Johnson had nothing to do with Scooby-Doo. But Ian Beasley of the Democratic Unionist Party said on Wednesday that Johnson promised him in October 2019 that he would tear up the protocol after signing it.
He told the BBC: “Boris Johnson told me personally that, after agreeing to protocol, he would sign a change to that protocol and actually tear it up, and that this was only for semantics.”
Despite his background as a professional diplomat and his opposition to Brexit as president of the Scotch Whiskey Association, Frost was part of a faction that left voting around Cummings within Downing Street. When Cummings and his ally Lee Kane were ousted in a coup last November, Frost was part of a small but powerful relic left behind.
The other significant part of that rest is Johnson himself, who despite his personal separation from Cummings still adopts a political style that is very risky, breaking rules and ignoring mores. Johnson’s instinct, not Frost, will determine how far Britain will go to break up its agreement with the European Union.
The next few weeks of negotiations will likely be quiet, not least because Johnson will not want a storm in the Channel to distract from his Cop 26 summit in Glasgow in the first half of November. But it is unlikely that London would compromise with the EU or drop its European Court of Justice request without first trying to increase the volume by triggering Article 16.
Those close to Frost talk about releasing the article in a limited manner, suspending only some narrow elements of the protocol while negotiations continue. But after playing this card, Britain’s next unilateral action could be to follow Cummings’ advice to Frost by introducing legislation to repeal the Protocol and introduce its own rules.
The EU will prepare for such action and decide on its response knowing that Britain faces severe economic and social headwinds that weaken its ability to deal with resolute retaliation for long.
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