Lord David Frost’s shock resignation is a major blow to the Prime Minister, just a day after his party was given a drubbing by the Lib Dems in the North Shropshire byelection. That result called into question Johnson’s leadership — with Frost, a key ally, leaving, an even bigger question mark now hangs over his head.
Frost was responsible for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Once that was done, Johnson rewarded him with a cabinet role at the start of the year. He made him chief negotiator for ‘Task Force One Europe’, responsible for negotiating future agreements with the EU. For the past few months, he’s been locked in talks with European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič to iron out issues with the UK’s post-Brexit arrangements, particularly those relating to fishing rights and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Negotiations haven’t gone well for the UK. Following a tense few months over rights for French fishermen, Jersey began to issue licences after the EU threatened legal action. According to Clément Beaune, France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, 93 percent have now been fulfilled.
Yesterday, in a significant concession, the government abandoned its plan(£) to strip the European Court of Justice of the power to oversee the Northern Ireland Protocol, seen as a key concession to the EU. For months, Number 10 had indicated its willingness to trigger Article 16 of the protocol over the issue. They threatened to ditch customs checks which could have forced a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The threat received widespread international condemnation, particularly from the EU and US, who were concerned that the step would jeopardise the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.
These two examples are just the latest in a series of recent post-Brexit climb-downs by the government.
Last summer, plans to bring in a UK version of the EU’s product standards CE mark was pushed back to 2023 after pressure from business leaders.
In October, it became clear that there was a critical shortage of truck drivers, and of butchers and poultry workers in meat processing plants. The government caved into pressure and announced a temporary visa scheme to recruit thousands of foreign workers to fill the gaps. Three months later, less than 100 visas have been issued.
Last week, the government announced that its plan for companies to register chemicals on a new UK system has been delayed at least two years. The Guardian lists eight other major U-turns by the government on post-Brexit controls.
But this continual, humiliating erosion of the Brexit deal Frost negotiated is not the reason he has resigned, according to the Mail on Sunday. It was ‘disillusionment at government policy‘ on taxes, net zero politics and Plan B measures that he claims were the last straw.
Although Frost apparently handed in his notice a week ago, Number 10 waited until the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing final to make the announcement. While millions were watching two couples battling it out on the dancefloor, the Twittersphere erupted at the news.
The BBC’s Lewis Goodall posted a copy of Lord Frost’s resignation letter.
Many, like comedian David Schneider, were sceptical of the reason given for Frost’s resignation.
Andrew Adonis also didn’t buy Frost’s ‘disagreement at government policies’ claim.
Anton Spisak notes that Frost is not the only politician closely associated with Brexit who has resigned before the job is completed.
Sarah Hurst references the new border controls to be implemented on imports from January 1 which are expected to cause wide-scale supply chain disruption.
Chris Grey looks to Frost’s replacement as an indicator of Johnson’s authority within his party.
The FT’s Peter Foster suggests Johnson may have no choice but to appoint a Brexit hard-liner as Frost’s replacement.
Amongst all the speculation, there was plenty of humour too.
There’s no doubt Frost’s departure has left the Prime Minister in an even more precarious position than he was after the North Shropshire election results. While many Remainers have been cheering, Peter Foster’s observation that Johnson may decide he has no choice but to shore up his position with his ERG back-benchers by appointing a Brexit hard-liner, may well be borne out.