With UK Brexit policy now effectively sub-contracted to David Frost, here is Professor Chris Grey’s detailed analysis of his recent Sunday Telegraph article, the dangerous delusions which underpin it, and what it means for UK-EU relations. Delightful. Brutal. Stunning.
First published in March 2021.
This piece will be slightly different to the normal round up and discussion of the week’s Brexit events. Instead, it will provide a detailed analysis of an article written by David (now Lord) Frost in last week’s Sunday Telegraph. This is worthwhile because the UK’s Brexit policy for the foreseeable future has effectively been sub-contracted to Frost by Boris Johnson. That is not to absolve the Prime Minister of responsibility – there can be no doubt that Frost’s approach to Brexit is one that Johnson favours – but he seems also to have lost what interest he ever had in its practicalities.
Thus Frost, despite the somewhat lacklustre career described in Nick Cohen’s acerbic profile of the former diplomat, currently enjoys very extensive power. Elevated to the cabinet, he now co-chairs the Joint Committee to oversee the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as the Partnership Council of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). He was, of course, the UK’s Chief Negotiator for both agreements. He has immediately, and apparently deliberately, brought a new pugnacity to these roles as discussed in my blog post. This is consistent with the way he conducted the negotiations with the EU which led to the two agreements.
The Sunday Telegraph article presumably informs the approach he will take to his new roles. It is tempting to dismiss it as Frost (and by inference Johnson) playing to the domestic gallery and the Brexiter audience, and no doubt there is an element of that. But I think such a dismissal misunderstands a fundamental point: Frost, in common with many Brexiters, really does believe what he says.
In particular, he undoubtedly believes that his ‘hardball’ negotiating approach was highly skilled and the only way in which the EU was ‘forced to accept the UK’s terms’. Included in that supposed skilfulness was the ever-present threat of no deal (in relation to both agreements) and the threat to break international law with the Internal Market Bill (in relation to the TCA). This has been an article of faith amongst Brexiters, and they think it was lacking in Theresa May’s approach but demonstrated in Johnson’s.
It is nonsense, of course. Both the deals Johnson and Frost struck were substantially on terms set by the EU in the light of the UK’s – originally Theresa May’s – red lines. And so skilled were Frost and Johnson in making these deals that they had no idea of the consequences for Northern Ireland or for trade generally. The latest manifestation of their Laurel and Hardy incompetence comes with last week’s announcement that the government has got to postpone the already delayed introduction of import controls by at least six more months.
Additionally, my impression is that Frost, and probably Johnson, really does believe the doctrine of ‘sovereign equals’ (critiqued in an earlier piece) to be a meaningful one. Indeed there is every sign, especially in his Brussels speech of February 2020, that Frost considers himself to be not just a negotiating genius but something of a philosopher. In reality, he peddles re-heated ideas about sovereignty culled from Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century Conservative thinker, and imagines that they have purchase in the twenty-first century.
These are both dangerous delusions. In particular, they mean that Frost wouldn’t regard it as a criticism that he is creating antagonistic relations with the EU, but rather as a sign that he is doing a good job. If the EU does not retaliate it ‘proves’ he is right to stand up to its ‘bullying’ and justifies his approach. If the EU does retaliate it ‘proves’ it is not respecting British sovereignty and justifies his approach. In such a circular logic, a spiral of ever-greater antagonism is built in not as an unfortunate consequence but as a designed and desired feature. It is an approach which is already causing despair, not so much within the EU but amongst the British businesses which have to pay the price for it. And it is set to cost all of us dear.
The article is headlined “Brussels needs to shake off its remaining ill-will and treat Brexit Britain as an equal”, and sub-titled “We are already seeing the benefits of gaining control of our own affairs”. Below, I reproduce the entire article, broken into sections, in italics, with each section preceded by my ‘headline’ and followed by my commentary.
“When I voted to leave the EU in 2016, I did so because I thought decisions about our country should be made by the people of this country. Polling shows that many voted to leave for the same reason – for democracy.”
It is a widely-remarked upon irony that this thirst for democracy should have led to an unelected politician placed by appointment in the House of Lords and the Cabinet being in control of Brexit policy. The point isn’t that such appointments are new – they have long been a feature of the British system – but that they sit uneasily with the Brexiter idea that what matters is that we can vote out the people who make decisions on our behalf if we don’t like them. No one voted for Frost. More importantly, as with the related idea of sovereignty, it is hopelessly naive – all kinds of decisions that affect this or any other country are not made by its people or by those they have voted for, and that will continue to be the case regardless of Brexit.
“Even now, the central importance of being responsible for our future as a country is often lost. The public debate about what happens now after Brexit is still at least as much about the details of customs and form-filling – important though that is – and not about the huge advantages we now have in being able to choose a government able to set our laws in every area of our national life.”
If it’s being lost in public debate “even now” that is because the practical consequences are becoming clearer. The rider “important as it is” can’t conceal the dismissiveness of the reference to “the details”. But what is really being coded here is Frost’s previous ignorant comment, in the Brussels speech, that “all these studies [of the economic impact of Brexit] exaggerate – in my view – the impact of non-tariff barriers, they exaggerate customs costs, in some cases by orders of magnitude”. That unsupported “view” is what informed the entire approach of the TCA as being focussed mainly on tariffs, and is now being exposed precisely by “the details” of what companies are facing. Quite simply, Frost got it wrong. So naturally he’d prefer public debate to focus on the vague notion of “being responsible for our future” than on his and others’ actual responsibility for the very definite realities of the damage Brexit is doing.
“The Treaty I negotiated last year reflects those central propositions about Brexit. It removes us from the EU’s laws, its rules, its courts, and its institutions, while keeping open and free trade between us. Many said it could not be done – but we did it.”
This is nonsense. The TCA did not ‘keep open and free trade’, it introduced massive new barriers to trade. No one said that could not be done. What many said could not be done was what was claimed by Johnson and others that the same, or even nearly the same, terms of trade could be negotiated for the UK as a non-member of the Single Market as it had had as a member (aka ‘cakeism’). The TCA demonstrated that this warning was completely correct.
David Frost. | Flickr/Number 10
“Some, I know, have criticised us for taking what they see as an ideological view of the negotiations last year, for prioritising sovereignty over the economy. But this is a false choice. Sovereignty and democracy are vital to economic success. Sovereignty is meaningful because it enables us to set our own rules democratically for our own benefit, and thereby become more prosperous. It is a conviction that we, the British people, will make better decisions for ourselves than others will on our behalf.”
This is just fluff or, as Frost has it, “conviction”, which might better be rendered as ‘blind faith’. Even if one were to accept Frost’s simplistic idea about sovereignty and EU membership then the economic performance of Germany, in particular, compared with the UK, whilst both were member states, shows that his linkage of sovereignty to economic performance is flawed. But, as with the issue of democracy, there is no reason to accept that simplistic idea anyway. Countries are liable to all sorts of rules (including those of the WTO) without their sovereignty being violated. And, as the very first Brexit White Paper stated, Britain did not lose sovereignty as an EU member, although “it has not always felt like that”. The same is true of the EU-27 sovereign states. The UK has no more sovereignty than it had before; it is just poorer, having paid out for an illusion.
“In our negotiations, it was clear right from the start that there was no world in which the EU would eliminate all trade barriers with the UK, unless we accepted the wholesale application of their rules and laws with no say in them. Instead, we chose to prioritise democracy and the control of our own destiny.”
This directly contradicts the claims Frost made above about the TCA keeping open and free trade, and in its acknowledgement of ‘prioritisation’ directly contradicts his denial of there being a choice between sovereignty and economic cost. It also directly contradicts the promises made to Leave voters. That isn’t a minor matter – both during the campaign and for years afterwards voters were promised that there could be a deal which gave “the exact same benefits” and “frictionless trade”. Frost can’t simultaneously wax lyrical about democracy and controlling our own destiny whilst pretending those promises were never made to the electorate.
“I have always believed that the gains of controlling our own affairs outweigh the short-term adjustments. That is what Britain has chosen.”
It is a ‘belief’, like his ‘convictions’. But what is it based on? We are not, in any case, merely seeing “short-term adjustments” – these are the immediately visible manifestations of a longer-term structural shift for which evidence is now beginning to emerge. And recall that even “short-term adjustments” are, again, not what Leave voters were told to expect by Vote Leave, which said that there would be no “sudden change” because “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we begin any legal process to leave”. So it is hardly ‘what Britain has chosen’.
“And we are already seeing the results of that choice. Opting out of EU vaccine procurement has had extraordinary results. It will enable us soon, I hope, to cast off all the shackles of lockdown and to return to the full freedom and normal life which a free people have every right to expect.”
Opting out is the key term. The UK did opt out, whilst governed by EU rules and law during the transition period. It could have done the same had it been a member. So this claim is disingenuous.
“The introduction of our own tariff regime – one much less protectionist than the EU’s – will help hold prices down for the benefit of consumers.”
Expert analysis by the UK Trade Policy Observatory suggests it is questionable whether the UK’s new tariff regime is “much” less protectionist than the EU’s. It is true that the new UK Global Tariff schedule, which replaces the EU Common External Tariff schedule for trade on WTO basic (‘MFN’) terms, has removed tariffs on about 17% of products and reduced or simplified tariffs on about another 40%. But most of these adjustments are quite small, and overall: “the tariffs on over half of products have changed, but the weighted average tariff on goods imported from ‘MFN’ countries has fallen only from 2.1% to 1.5%”. In any case, the unilateral reduction or removal of tariffs isn’t necessarily a good thing. It may lead to lower prices but it may also increase unemployment in industries which become less protected from foreign competition. Moreover, it reduces the incentive for countries to do trade deals with the UK if tariffs have already been liberalised.
“Our new, targeted, high-skilled visa will help us to drive innovation and secure our status as a Science Superpower.”
The UK could have done this anyway with respect to non-EU scientists and others, without losing the far easier route of freedom of movement for those from the EU which was hugely beneficial to UK scientific success.
“And Rishi Sunak’s Budget this week set out the eight new Freeports that will create jobs and spread prosperity across the country. As Minister for the benefits of Brexit, I aim to help drive through more such new opportunities, and drive through change for the better.”
“Unfortunately, the consequences of applying laws which do not fully enjoy consent have been all too clear in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Northern Ireland is still subject to the provisions of the Ireland Protocol, which we agreed in order to protect the gains of the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its aspects.”
The key point is that we – Frost especially – did indeed agree to it. So to say it lacks “consent” is disingenuous if it implies that, somehow, it has been foisted on the UK by the EU. And to say that Northern Ireland is “still subject” to the Protocol is disingenuous if it implies that, somehow, its provisions should not be applied or that doing so violates the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
David Frost, Boris Johnson, Ursula von Der Leyen, and Michel Barnier. | Flickr/Number 10
“Unfortunately, the action taken by the EU in late January on their vaccines regulation, and the improper invocation of Article 16, has significantly undermined cross-community confidence in the Protocol. As the government of the whole of our country we have to deal with that situation – one that remains fragile. That is why we have had to take some temporary operational steps to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland.”
This is hideously dishonest. The opposition to the Protocol preceded these events. Article 16 wasn’t invoked by the EU – invocation was proposed and then abandoned within hours. It did not create any ‘situation’, except to the extent that it is being used opportunistically by Frost and other Brexiters, and it is totally and completely irrelevant to the disruptions being caused by the Protocol, which derive solely from what the UK government agreed to, as well as its lamentable failure to be ready to implement it, compounded by its bone-headed refusal to extend the transition period.
“They are lawful and are consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the Protocol. They are about protecting the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland, making sure they can receive parcels and buy the usual groceries from the supermarket. Without this threat of disruption, we can continue our discussions with the EU to resolve difficulties arising from the Protocol constructively – and we aim to do so.”
They are neither lawful nor in good faith to the extent that they are unilateral, and so violate the Protocol. They are in fact a deliberate provocation in line with Frost’s entire approach to negotiations. The disruption to everyday lives in Northern Ireland is real, but it is a direct result of what Frost negotiated and Johnson agreed. It could have been addressed by agreement had the UK chosen to, but Frost is actively seeking confrontation.
“Finally, this country now has a huge opportunity to shape the international scene for the better. In recent years it was too often claimed that Britain was no longer interested in playing a major international role. I never believed that. The British people are internationalist and want to make a difference in the world. Dominic Raab has now proven in practice that the ability to speak clearly and to act decisively is more important than being part of a large and inflexible bloc.”
This is simply nonsense. British Foreign Secretaries have always been free to speak and act independently of the EU and have always done so.
“When we left the EU, we gained the ability – for the first time in 50 years – to enact independent national sanctions as part of a nimble, values-driven foreign policy.”
The value of an independent sanctions policy is highly questionable according to experts, the most obvious reason being that sanctions are far more effective when done in concert with other countries, as when the UK sought international support following the Salisbury attack by Russia. Conversely, having left the EU, the UK no longer has any influence over EU sanctions policy. In any case, UK sanctions policy is unlikely to become independent of the UN – and why should it be? As for UK foreign policy in general, this has never been a matter for the EU, and will be no more and no less “nimble” or “values-driven” as a result of Brexit. More fluff.
“We have stood up for Hong Kong against the violations of the Joint Declaration by China. We are driving vigorous action in the G7 on Pandemic Preparedness. And we are bolstering our armed forces with the biggest increase in our defence budget since the Cold War, comfortably exceeding the Nato pledge of 2 per cent of GDP.”
None of these policies required Brexit, and none is made more effective by Brexit.
“With Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, our agenda is one of an outward-looking country, confident we can work with others towards common goals. That is our hope for our ties with our European friends and allies too. I hope they will shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship, between sovereign equals. That is what I will be working towards, acting constructively when we can, standing up for our interests when we must – as a sovereign country in full control of our own destiny.”
There’s very little sign of ill-will from the EU. From the start, there was regret and, during the negotiations, an extraordinary degree of forbearance which has now given way to exasperation. The antagonism and distrust have been created by the repeated aggression and dishonesty of the British government and Brexiters, for which Frost bears a particular responsibility in recent years. His call for a “friendly relationship” is transparently insincere given his actions. And the doctrine of sovereign equals is all but meaningless, whilst the idea that any sovereign country is in full control of its own destiny is little more than an adolescent fantasy in an interdependent world.
A sorry mixture
Taken as whole, the article is a sorry mixture of blather, nonsense, disingenuity and dishonesty. If I am right that Frost not only believes all this but even thinks it is pretty smart stuff, it is actually even more depressing than if he were playing to the Brexiter gallery. It shows how, for the foreseeable future, UK-EU relations will be framed, because Johnson has given Frost the power to do so.
This framing was not inevitable and nor does it flow from the Referendum. That, like it or not, provided a mandate for Brexit, even if not in the form it has taken. Any such mandate has been discharged. The Referendum did not provide a mandate for the permanently hostile and antagonistic relations which Johnson’s government is now creating. Indeed Vote Leave promised that Brexit would mean “better relations with our European friends”.
The biggest irony is that, for all the talk of ‘breaking free’ and ‘taking responsibility for our future’, Brexit Britain remains absolutely stuck in its obsession with the EU. After all, we do not hear the ‘sovereign equals’ bleat in relation to any other international relationship. The country, as represented by Frost, seems increasingly like a stroppy, entitled teenager who has stormed out of the family home in a tantrum and now endlessly complains that his awful parents are disrespecting him.
‘Not only are they no longer housing me,’ he whines, ‘but they are insisting I clear my stuff out just because I promised to when I left. And I’m stuck with paying the rent on my new place because they won’t help me out any more. Don’t they realise I’m an adult now?’
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
- Professor Grey is the author of Brexit Unfolded: How no one got what they want (and why they were never going to) | Biteback Publishing
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[This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 17 March 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - David Frost. | 24 December 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)