Shape-shifter Frost does a flit

Published by The i paper (20th December, 2021)

The departure of Lord Frost is good news for Britain but very bad news for Boris Johnson. The Brexit minister’s decision to flounce off the stage has rounded off the prime minister’s week from hell with a nasty flourish as Johnson’s authority wilts before our eyes, his incompetence mercilessly exposed and his inept leadership placed firmly in the spotlight. The resignation of arguably his closest ally in cabinet came after the drip-drip revelations about shocking lockdown-defying parties, his biggest backbench revolt over some comparatively mild pandemic restrictions and that stunning by-election defeat in North Shropshire.

Even Johnson – whose career has been defined by blaming others, flouting rules and shrugging off setbacks that might have felled other politicians – cannot avoid knowing in his shrivelled soul that his personal failures are the single thread that binds all his problems together. He is the leader who led the toxic populist takeover of the Conservative party, abandoned some of its central tenets, spat in the face of many traditional voters, tried to cover up sleaze and fostered a culture in Downing Street that seems so frighteningly contemptuous of the rest of us. Now he has been ditched by his pal – whom he claimed to be “the greatest frost since the great frost of 1709” in his party conference speech just two months ago.

Presumably the prime minister’s admiration is now melting. Yet he should not be surprised to see Frost posing as a flag bearer for the libertarian right. The former Brexit minister is – like him – a shapeshifter who seems to constantly change. For many years Frost was a nondescript diplomat, whose colleagues say displayed no signs of the severe case of Euroscepticism that apparently infected him at some point. Next he emerged as head of the Scotch Whisky Association, where in 2016 he asked why anyone would want to leave the European Union or single market since it would lead to imposition of trade barriers. “Let’s not turn our back on the world’s greatest free trade area,” he warned. Yet then he popped up as a Brexit hardliner, winning a seat in cabinet by spouting similar nonsense to Johnson.

Now he has quit with headline-grabbing “concerns about the current direction of travel.” Once again, this political chameleon proves there are no real friends in politics, one reason why it is such a ghastly profession. He highlights also the breathtaking hypocrisy of those chancers who pushed a hardline form of Brexit, then ran away like infants suffering a tantrum over an untidy bedroom when confronted by the mess they created. The Remain ultra Lord Adonis made an astonishing revelation on Twitter that Frost is the 47th ministerial resignation related to Brexit – “a revolution devouring its children” he added.

Johnson and Frost sought to revoke their own deal only to be mugged by reality. Ireland showed, with weary predictability, the limitations to their stance since the need to prevent a hard border left the north in the single market for goods. Under their hardline Brexit, such a border had to go somewhere so the choice was inside Ireland or the sea. Ironically, Johnson even told Tories in Northern Ireland they had secured a great deal by staying inside the trade zone. Now he has backed away from threats to trigger a trade war by invoking article 16 of the Brexit agreement to suspend agreements on Northern Ireland, just as he dropped demands to block the European court of justice from being the final arbiter of trade rules there.

The government’s crashing popularity seems to have weakened desire for a trade war, thankfully. Yet Frost has quit with a shameless letter that shows how much he seems to have learned from his former boss, master of such duplicitous missives. He warns against “coercive measures” to tackle Covid, although the latest curbs across much of our continent are far stricter, and claims he wants “a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy”. So whose hardline Brexit was it that tied firms in needless red tape – with customs declarations alone costing British businesses an extra £7.5bn a year? And reduced tax revenues by restraining growth? And crippled public services and entire swathes of the economy by inflaming staff shortages?

North Shropshire’s ballot indicated that even in a rural area backing Brexit, voters are seeing through these sort of self-serving politicians. Decent people, after all, do not lie constantly in daily life. Frost’s departure only underlines the decline of the Tory party into crass populism and crude nationalism. Look at another resignation last week: the newly-appointed head of the Charity Commission, another friend of Johnson, shoe-horned into this vital and well-paid post despite being forced out as chair of a women’s aid charity over ‘inappropriate’ behaviour seven months earlier. It is all just a tribal game to these people – but it is being played out at our expense regardless of the seriousness of the role, the importance of the responsibilities or the cost to the country in terms of finance, health or societal cohesion.

For all Johnson’s bragging about British exceptionalism and Frost’s pose as a patriot, the ultimate victim of their behaviour is our country. Yes, this prime minister is a symptom of wider problems that plague both the Tories and Westminster. Yet this hollow man – with his shrinking circle of comrades – is fuelling corrosion of faith in our political system at a time when it faces existential challenges on several fronts.

Meanwhile, the divided Conservative Party looks an ungovernable rabble devoid of principles, lacking any clear sense of direction and being ripped apart by fanatics seeking some kind of ill-defined permanent revolution. Enough is enough, as one of their ring-leaders Steve Baker says – not just of Johnson but the whole damn lot of them who are demeaning our democracy and desecrating our nation.

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