Artillery Row Sketch

Frost knocks on

Tugendhat tackles the Cabinet Office’s Mr Task Force Europe

Whose Conservative Party is it anyway? In the past five years, the Tories have repeatedly undergone the kinds of character shift more usually associated with serious brain trauma. It’s not just the changes of leader: Theresa May’s government in 2018 was very different from the one in 2016. In the same way, Boris Johnson has gone from do-or-die Brexiteer to safety-first Lockdowner.

It’s very confusing for their MPs. Some, like Oliver Dowden, have effortlessly trimmed with the wind. Once a David Cameron liberal, Dowden is now a cross between Norman Tebbit and Charles Bronson, wandering the streets late at night hoping to find a punk disrespecting a statue, so that he can strangle them with a Union Jack. It’s a strategy that has taken Dowden to the top, or, at any rate, to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Likewise Matt Hancock has, in recent memory, both opposed and supported Brexit, and argued that a no-deal departure from the European Union was both madness and the only option available to the UK. When on Tuesday morning he was asked about Johnson’s description of him as “hopeless”, he defended the prime minister. His spine is being looked after in a blind trust until such time as he leaves government.

Other Tory MPs have taken a different approach. Tom Tugendhat has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to transform them into the thriving secure democracies that they are today. He has enjoyed similar levels of success in his political career, entering parliament as a Cameron Conservative just as it was going out of fashion.

Hancock’s spine is being looked after in a blind trust until such time as he leaves government

But Tugendhat knows a thing or two about insurgencies, and seems to be treating the Johnson government as an occupying force. He keeps his head down, sits in his cave, and every so often pops out to make trouble.

The cave he’s chosen is the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs. On Tuesday, his victim was David Frost, the former diplomat sent by Johnson to negotiate with the EU. Many Tories love Frost, viewing him as the cold-eyed genius who delivered Johnson’s Brexit deal. Tugendhat, it was swiftly clear, takes a slightly different position, viewing Frost instead as the complacent idiot who delivered Johnson’s Brexit deal.

Frost’s reward for securing the deal is a seat in the House of Lords, where he will be able to pass or reject the laws that govern us for the rest of his life. We are stuck with him. He has become a permafrost.

He has a seat in the Cabinet, and is occupied implementing his deal. In giving evidence he was accompanied by an official who sat next to him and, as the court reporters would say, spoke only to confirm his name.

The Sketch recalls a time – little more than a year ago – when Johnson’s spokesman was confidently predicting that the word “Brexit” would never pass his lips again. Brexit was done, and the prime minister was finished with it. As with so many things of which Johnson has grown bored, however, Brexit had some way to run.

Take Northern Ireland, for instance. Frost expressed bewilderment that the decision to put a border in the Irish Sea had affected the movement of goods. “Until we began implementing the protocol nobody could quite know that,” he explained.

Tugendhat looked a little surprised by that. Had it not, he gently asked, been predicted by quite a few people? Frost said he’d hoped the EU would be flexible. Tugendhat asked what in the last five years the EU had done to spark that hope.

What about the row about whether the EU ambassador should be treated as an ambassador, which saw Her Majesty’s Government insist that this shouldn’t happen before eventually conceding that it would? “It’s slightly surprising to us that it blew up as an issue,” Frost, who really did definitely work as an actual diplomat in a previous life, said. Tugendhat looked unimpressed.

On they went, from issue to issue. The EU, Frost explained, was quite a big, unwieldy organisation that took quite a legalistic approach to things. It treated non-members differently from members. He explained this as though it was news. Possibly he spent the years 2016 to 2019 in his own cave.

Other members of the committee took the view that the problem was the foreigners. Bob Seely, another Tory who’s a former soldier, suggested that the French were playing “silly political games”. The Sketch was surprised to learn that one of Boris Johnson’s Tories regarded silly political games as a bad thing. Seely urged Frost to develop export routes that involved “slightly less reliance on the Frenchies.” It was a line delivered with the sad air of a man burdened by having been born 200 years too late to fight at Waterloo.

Frost hoped that the EU would dial its approach down a bit. He said that the Brexiteers of 2016 would be surprised how bad relations were now. Given that he works for a man who in 2016 suggested the EU was a Nazi project, this again seems somewhat naïve.

But Johnson has done well out of Brexit: he’s in Number 10. Frost has done well out of Brexit: he’s in the Lords. Tugendhat has done less well, but he has his committee, and perhaps the winds in the Tory party will change again. In the meantime, he lurks in his cave, and waits for victims.

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