To understand Lord Frost is to understand Britain’s approach to Brexit

The world according to Boris Johnson’s pugnacious chief Brexit negotiator

12/5/2021 5:00:00 PM

Britain’s chief negotiator denies that he is refighting yesterday’s battles in order to whip up Eurosceptic voters. His approach excites his Conservative Party, which has become disillusioned by Boris Johnson’s fumbling

The world according to Boris Johnson’s pugnacious chief Brexit negotiator

.British officials are once again pacing Brussels conference rooms, seeking to rewrite the settlement on Northern Ireland that bedevilled Brexit talks. Unless radical surgery is undertaken to allow food and medicine to move freely, warns David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator, Britain will invoke Article 16, an emergency clause that could lead to parts of it being unilaterally suspended. To understand why means seeing the world through the eyes of Lord Frost, a former diplomat-turned-whisky lobbyist whom the prime minister, Boris Johnson, ennobled and promoted to the cabinet. In the referendum of 2016 there were a dozen varieties of Brexit, contradictory and vaporous. Now there is only one, diamond-hard—and it is Lord Frost’s. His negotiating partners, who struggle to understand him, think it fanaticism. He would call it simply Brexit.

European observers tend to think Brexit’s historical lodestar is the second world war, or perhaps the British empire. In Lord Frost’s telling the story begins with Edmund Burke, a conservative philosopher of the 1700s who warned of a conflict between an organic constitution built on custom and traditions, and the cruel, hyper-rational order the French Revolution would unleash. For him Brexit is the product of a clash between an adaptable British Parliament and an artificial, brittle European edifice unable to adapt to voters’ demands. Those who argue that the bloc is a British project are suffering from a “false consciousness”, he has said. Across the continent, he detects a stirring of the nation state. Brexit is not a freakish accident, but a restoration of the natural order.

British diplomats long saw the question of whether Britain was truly “sovereign” inside the European Union as a dinner-party thought experiment. What mattered was influence. But according to the Frost doctrine, sovereignty is real and hard, to be clawed back and keenly guarded.

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EUmembership was to him a “long bad dream”; only when Britain left did it become independent and free. To his interlocutors this seems quixotic, and to those who have experienced real dictatorships, a touch insulting. “Nobody expected such a crude nationalist to emerge out of the Channel tunnel,” says one Brussels-watcher.

Shielding Britain’s autonomy means a thin trade agreement and pain for businesses, for which Lord Frost has offered few apologies. Fix the constitution, his logic runs, and prosperity follows. He seems unembarrassed to be unstitching a deal on Northern Ireland that the prime minister signed. As he sees it, the deal was a flawed means to an end—to save Brexit—and one that has unravelled surprisingly quickly. Nor does he see its terms, which create a trade barrier down the Irish Sea, as his fault. He argues that negotiations were hobbled from the start after Theresa May, Mr Johnson’s predecessor, gave away too much, and the Europeans exploited chaos in the British Parliament to drive a lopsided deal. He regards those years as epic humiliation caused by British negotiators who were too cosy and too needy. He tells his staff to stand up for their country, and to repeat their demands until they sink in.

Lord Frost is softly-spoken and courteous, and a keen student of Flemish history. But noble ends justify rough means, say his allies. Only if Britain threatens to blow up the talks or tear up agreements will the Europeans give way. “He does not see negotiations as ‘how do we write nice communiqués that don’t do very much,’” says a former official. On Article 16, “he is absolutely willing to pull the trigger.” His cabinet colleagues are more squeamish. No one knows whom Mr Johnson will heed.

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Lord Frost denies that he is refighting yesterday’s battles in order to whip up Eurosceptic voters. Only if the deal is fixed, he has argued, can the new relationship with theEUso desired by his Europhile colleagues flourish. But his approach excites his party, which has become disillusioned by the prime minister’s fumbling.

A survey of Tory members by Conservative Home, a website, ranked Lord Frost as the second-most-popular member of the Cabinet behind Liz Truss, the foreign secretary. Mr Johnson was second from bottom. Lord Frost delighted them with an address on November 22nd in which he warned against wasting Brexit by missing a chance to abandon the European social model and embark on radical regulatory reforms. Among his fans on the backbenches is David Davis, who served as Mrs May’s Brexit secretary. Things would have gone a lot better if Lord Frost had been in charge from the start, he says.

Born in Derby and educated at a private school in Nottingham before a long but relatively unglamorous career in the Foreign Office, Lord Frost looks more like the middle-class provincials who predominate on the Tory benches than like his boss, who was born in New York and educated in Brussels and at Eton, and for whom Brexit appears more a wheeze than a cause. He was condescended to by

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EUnegotiators, who thought his threats to walk out theatrical and childish. The old guard of the diplomatic service are crueller: they think him a third-rater. No great surprise, says one former colleague. “They hate his guts, because he’s proved them all wrong and destroyed their life’s work.”

Read more: The Economist »

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