Understanding Lord Frost is understanding the British approach to Brexit

A CHOICE OF VISITORS a newspaper at the Eurostar terminal would be puzzled. Why, five years after the Brexit referendum and two years after agreeing on an exit treaty, are the British still arguing over the same thorny issues of customs, subsidies and the courts? Why, as a pandemic rages on and strained supply chains threaten to ruin Christmas, does his government risk a trade war over issues it promised voters would fix?

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British officials are roaming Brussels conference rooms again, seeking to rewrite the Northern Ireland settlement that has hampered Brexit talks. Unless radical surgery is undertaken to allow food and medicine to flow freely, warns David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator, Britain will invoke Article 16, a clause of emergency which could lead to the unilateral suspension of certain parties. Understanding why means seeing the world through the eyes of Lord Frost, a former diplomat turned whiskey lobbyist Prime Minister Boris Johnson knighted and promoted to cabinet. In the 2016 referendum, there were a dozen varieties of Brexit, contradictory and vaporous. Now there’s only one, hard as a diamond, and that’s Lord Frost’s. His interlocutors, who struggle to understand it, think that it is fanaticism. He would simply call it Brexit.

European observers tend to think the historic star of Brexit is WWII, or perhaps the British Empire. In Lord Frost’s tale, the story begins with Edmund Burke, a conservative philosopher of the 1700s who warned of a conflict between an organic constitution based on custom and tradition, and the cruel, hyper-rational order that the French Revolution was going to trigger. For him, Brexit is the product of a clash between an adaptable British Parliament and an artificial and fractious European edifice incapable of adapting to the demands of the voters. Those who argue that the bloc is a British project suffer from a “false conscience”, he said. Across the continent, he detects a nation-state unrest. Brexit is not a monstrous accident, but a restoration of the natural order.

British diplomats have long viewed the question of whether Britain is truly ‘sovereign’ within the European Union as a thought experiment over dinner. What mattered was influence. But according to the Frost doctrine, sovereignty is real and difficult, to be reclaimed and protected with care. EU membership was for him a “long bad dream”; it was not until Britain left that it became independent and free. For his interlocutors it seems chimerical, and for those who have known real dictatorships, a bit insulting. “No one expected such a rude nationalist to emerge from the Channel Tunnel,” said an observer from Brussels.

Protecting Britain’s autonomy means a thin trade deal and corporate pain, for which Lord Frost has offered some apologies. Secure the constitution, its logic runs, and prosperity follows. He doesn’t seem embarrassed to break a deal on Northern Ireland that the Prime Minister has signed. According to him, the deal was a flawed way to an end – to save Brexit – and one that came unraveling surprisingly quickly. He also doesn’t view his terms, which create a trade barrier along the Irish Sea, as his fault. He argues that negotiations were hampered from the start after Theresa May, Mr Johnson’s predecessor, gave too much, and the Europeans exploited the chaos in the British Parliament to strike a lopsided deal. He sees these years as an epic humiliation caused by too comfortable and too needy British negotiators. He tells his staff to defend their country and to repeat their demands until they sink.

Lord Frost is gentle and courteous, and a keen student of Flemish history. But noble ends justify crude means, say his allies. Only if Britain threatens to blow up talks or tear up deals will the Europeans give in. “He doesn’t see negotiations as’ how to write nice press releases that don’t add much,” said a former official. Regarding clause 16, “he is absolutely ready to pull the trigger”. His cabinet colleagues are more disgusted. No one knows who Mr Johnson will be paying attention to.

Lord Frost denies that he is relaunching yesterday’s battles in order to stir up Eurosceptic voters. It was only if the deal was made, he argued, that the new relationship with the EU so desired by his fellow Europhiles to flourish. But his approach excites his party, disillusioned by the Prime Minister’s trial and error.

A survey of Conservative members by Conservative Home, a website, ranked Lord Frost as the second most popular Cabinet member behind Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. Mr Johnson was second from the bottom. Lord Frost delighted them with a speech on November 22 in which he warned against wasting Brexit by missing a chance to abandon the European social model and embark on sweeping regulatory reforms. Among his fans on the back benches is David Davis, who has served as Ms May’s Brexit secretary. Things would have turned out 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 Foreign Office career, Lord Frost is more like the middle-class provincials who predominate on the Conservative benches than his native-born boss. New York. and trained in Brussels and Eton, and for whom Brexit seems more like wheezing than a cause. He was condescending to EU negotiators, who found his threats to exit theatrical and childish. The old guards of the diplomatic service are more cruel: they take him for a mediocre. No big surprise, says a former colleague. “They hate his guts, because he proved them all wrong and destroyed their life’s work.”

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This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Portrait of a Brexiteer”

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