Who is more chuffed by Lord Frost’s appointment as a Cabinet Office minister of state with Cabinet rank – the man himself, or his boss at the department, Michael Gove?
How to make the most of the respective talents of David Frost, who as the British government’s chief negotiator with the EU concluded the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) and the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, is the sort of challenge that – had it been left to executive head-hunters rather than the prime minister – would have commanded a fat professional fee. For at its heart is the question over the extent to which both of them should continue to “own” the new framework of relations created by the form of Brexit that they secured.
After months of attrition negotiating a deal that expert opinion was certain could not be struck on such a tight timetable (especially amidst the disruptions of Covid), Frost could have been forgiven for looking forward to 2021 as an opportunity for a refreshing change of scene. The new challenge he accepted from Boris Johnson was as National Security Adviser. Whitehall insiders were horrified. “What does he know about spying?” was their gist, particularly from those that had confidently explained that Frost’s past as ambassador for Denmark would prove wholly inadequate preparation for negotiating with political and diplomatic giants like Michel Barnier and Clara Martinez Alberola.
Then on 29 January, in an apparent victory for experience and continuity of outlook over disruptive thinking, Boris Johnson announced that he had changed his mind and from March the National Security Adviser would instead be the current permanent secretary at the MoD, Sir Stephen Lovegrove. Very publicly gazumped by the Whitehall insider at almost the last possible moment, a not overly gruntled Frost was instead appointed as the UK Representative for Brexit and International Policy.
In that capacity, Frost is tasked with working closely with Dominic Raab at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to coordinate relations with the EU institutions and their 27 member states. The potential for this collaboration to be testy as the Foreign Office’s more engrained civil servants rub up against Frost’s alternative imperatives is not necessarily a drawback. But he is also expected to guide other government departments on reforming domestic laws and regulation in the light of the wider bandwidth provided them by Brexit as well as with Liz Truss’s Department for International Trade.
Frost retains all these roles whilst gaining a seat in the Cabinet from which to operate them. In that sense, Wednesday’s announcement of his Cabinet elevation is a clear victory for him and more than recompense for his being rudely jilted as National Security Adviser. The prime minister has made good on a broken pledge – not least because he owes Frost a considerable debt.
Frost will be engaged in picking at the Gordian knot of making the Northern Ireland protocol workable
What is more, as minister of state, Frost will also become UK Chair of the Partnership Council and the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. The former is the EU-UK body tasked with interpreting, applying and implementing the FCA; the latter is engaged in picking at the Gordian knot of making the Northern Ireland protocol workable.
As the man who led the negotiating team that secured the FCA, Frost is eminently qualified to the be the British co-chair of the Partnership Council. It is an especially important role because besides finding agreement on points of interpretation and application, the Council can also – until the end of this year – agree limited amendments to the agreement to cover omissions or bring clarity.
Yet, it was only on 8 February that Michael Gove was being probed – teased even – by members of the European Scrutiny Committee on when he would be confirmed as the co-chair of that Council.
Now Gove will run neither the British side of the Partnership Council nor continue in what has been his current role as co-chair of the joint committee where he has been the British Laurel to the EU’s Hardy of Maroš Šefčovič.
The fine mess Gove had gotten himself into over the Northern Ireland protocol is now Frost’s to solve. Having that poisoned chalice whipped from his lips, Gove would be scarcely human if he did not regard that as a deliverance, given the intractability of the problems the Northern Ireland protocol he was central to securing has thrown up – problems for the people of Northern Ireland and those British mainland companies that supply them, the endangered fortunes of the DUP and the integrity of the Union being a lot to be getting on with.
A rumour did the rounds of Whitehall on Wednesday evening that being relieved of these burdens represented a demotion for Gove and that he will be asked to focus his energies on his chairmanship of the Covid public services implementation committee. If so, it is the kindest of cuts. For Gove would have to embody the complex of a willing martyr to relish being privately yet continuously berated by ERG Brexiteers and, more openly, by Ulster’s Unionists on how to make the Protocol work. He may find his focus can now be more profitably directed towards saving the part of the imperilled Union from which he hails.
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