You have to hand it to Lord Frost. He sure knows how to lose an audience. Not that the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator had much of one to start with. There were only a few dozen people in the British embassy in Lisbon and under 300 watching on the Cabinet Office live Twitter feed to hear Frost give his keynote speech on the Northern Ireland protocol. How many were still awake by the time he got to the end of his 30-minute confused ramble is anyone’s guess.
Then again maybe that was the point. Being dull is what Frost does best. He numbs the senses to distract you from the more obvious weaknesses in his own arguments. As a negotiator his main tactic is to bore you into submission, by hoping you will have forgotten much of what he said by the time you come to sign on the dotted line. The only flaw with this is that sometimes it’s him who nods off and forgets what he’s agreed to. Something that appears to have happened with the Brexit deal he concluded less than a year ago and which he is now desperate to change. Don’t worry. Lord Frost was on hand to clear up the damage caused by Lord Frost.
Frost struggled to explain what he was doing in Lisbon when he could more profitably have given the same speech in London or Brussels. “Edmund Burke and Van Eyck,” he muttered, not really making things any clearer. He’d have been better off just saying that if it was OK for Boris to sneak off to stay with Zac Goldsmith in Marbella for the week it was fine for him to have an awayday with the British ambo in Portugal.
That, though, was about the highpoint of his logic. Next up, Frost diplomatically trashed the EU by saying he was no longer much interested in what our former European allies did – before going on to insist the UK’s main influence now resided in the influence we could exert through competition and the power of example.
That was why we had needed a hard Brexit as only a hard Brexit gave us the freedom to change. This from the same David Frost who in 2016 as chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association had said the UK would be mad to leave the benefits of the single market. If you don’t like Frosty’s principles, he’s got plenty of others. How else do you get made a lord these days?
Thereafter it wasn’t clear if Frost was being wilfully stupid or was just trying to have a laugh. First, he cited freeports as one of Brexit’s biggest wins – oblivious to the fact that the EU didn’t actually prohibit them – and then went on to extol the virtues of a free market, low tax economy.
Something the UK can now only dream about as the government appears ready to step in to support business and put up taxes to their highest rates since the 1940s. Weirdest of all, he cited the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as a symbol of Boris leading the world by example. Clearly Frost hadn’t got round to reading the cross-party health and science committees’ report that had been published that morning.
But all that had really only been foreplay to soften up the EU for the main event. Because what Frost really wanted was to rip up the NI protocol and start again with a new one which would allow us to do whatever we wanted. The very same Northern Ireland protocol that he had, at Christmas last year, said was “an excellent deal with the EU that he had been proud to secure”.
The problem was this. It wasn’t that the UK hadn’t anticipated there being a few teething problems with the Northern Ireland protocol: effectively creating a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland had been the only way to preserve the principles of the Good Friday agreement.
The trouble lay with the fact that the EU was breaking the spirit of the NI protocol by going to the trouble of implementing it. No one in the UK had imagined the EU would take such a purist approach to the treaties it signed. The UK negotiators had assumed they could safely ignore the bits they found inconvenient or troublesome. In a surreal coda, Frost closed by accusing the EU of acting in bad faith by applying the treaty in the form in which it had been agreed.
The audience’s questions didn’t provide any greater clarity. It was a total coincidence that the UK was threatening to rip up the NI protocol the day before the EU was due to give its response to the UK’s previous demands. It was intolerable that the NI protocol should be arbitrated by the European court of justice even though that had been provided for in the treaty. Frost didn’t want to provoke a trade war by triggering article 16 but if the EU didn’t do exactly what we wanted then they would have to suffer the consequences. And even if they did play along with us they would have to be prepared for us to change our minds again at a later stage. Because what Brexit really meant was that the UK could do whatever it liked whenever it wanted.
Frost scarpered off as soon as he could. He tried to put on the brave face of the underdog who had just stuck it to the Man. But something told him that he had just suffered an abject humiliation. Worse, it had come at his own hands. He had tried to sound like a statesman but had only succeeded in being a spoiled teenager. Furious to have been outwitted by himself by agreeing to the NI protocol. Far from a triumph, it had been a regression.
The Not-So-Secret Diary of David Frost aged 13¾.