Jill Rutter / Jan 2022
Photo: European Union 2022
This time last year, Liz Truss was the UK’s international trade secretary, jetting around the world in pursuit of trade deals – some new, some “rolled over” from the UK’s EU membership. The one deal where her department was allowed minimal say was the one with the UK’s biggest trade partner, the European Union. That had been the preserve of Lord Frost, who as a special adviser based in No.10 had been the UK’s Chief Negotiator, reporting directly to the prime minister.
A month after the Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force, David Frost was elevated to the Cabinet, made a Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, and put in charge of the UK’s relationship with the EU. His old Taskforce Europe morphed into a Europe unit in the Cabinet Office and he became chair of both the partnership council and the Joint Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement. He took over the latter role from Michael Gove – and many noted that Frost’s advent heralded a distinct new frigidity in UK-EU discussions about the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. That culminated in the publication of a new command paper in July, setting out the UK’s demands for a substantial rewrite of the protocol, and repeated threats to trigger Article 16.
The Frost empire extended further. He also oversaw the Border and Protocol Delivery Group, in charge of readying the GB border with the EU, and the Irish Sea border for the new trade relationship with the EU. And through the summer, Frost had been recruiting for a new Brexit Opportunities Unit, whose mission was the make good the opportunities from Brexit and deliver the promised Brexit dividend.
But less than a year after Frost was put in the Cabinet he walked. In his resignation letter he cited a wide range of concerns about the direction of the government – over taxation, regulation and the decision to move to so-called Plan B covid restrictions. That made him even more of a hero among the small state libertarians on the Conservative backbenches, who already relished his hardball tactics with the EU and belligerent approach to relations. But it meant the prime minister had a gap to fill.
His answer was to give the EU relationship and the Northern Ireland protocol to his relatively new Foreign Secretary, the aforementioned Truss. She had transformed her political fortunes from a much mocked environment secretary (google Liz Truss and cheese) and former Remainer to become a cheerleader for the new possibilities of trade policy through a mix of Instagram savvy and a willingness to spin the benefits of the deals she was signing with a similar boosterish chutzpah to the prime minister. That had propelled her to the top of Conservative members ratings of Cabinet Ministers – and to be seen as one of the two most likely candidates in the stakes to takeover from Boris Johnson if partygate pressures end up overwhelming him.
Johnson as Foreign Secretary had thought that his department should have a leading role on Brexit – only to discover himself routinely excluded from Theresa May’s Brexit inner circle. So you could argue that he was following his logic once the architect of the TCA had left government. And there is a clear case for arguing that the government needs to put its relationship with the EU into its wider geopolitical context – and the FCDO (the department took over the old Department for International Development in 2020 – still very much a work in progress). The oddity is that foreign and security policy – the domain of the FCDO in government - was specifically excluded from any sort of structured cooperation with the EU, despite the EU and Michel Barnier’s entreaties during the negotiations.
It might therefore seem logical to think that a Foreign Secretary would want to get the minutiae of border formalities between GB and Northern Ireland resolved quickly, to pave the way for productive cooperation with the EU on a wide range of areas where we have common interests and concerns.
But that would ignore the politics of the move. Many see giving Truss the lead role as a play to diminish her appeal as a challenger – a poisoned chalice. That could make too accommodating an approach with the EU a risky strategy with Conservative MPs who will ultimately decide who makes it into the top two in a leadership ballot and with the Conservative membership who rated Frost very highly. Many there, along with Ulster’s Democratic Unionists, want to move rapidly on Article 16.
In her first encounter with Maros Sefcovic, Truss laid on the charm: an invitation to her Kent grace-and-favour home and a menu of the best of British food. But although both sides have agreed to intensify the talks, it is not clear there has been any progress on substance – and the detail may be left to her deputy – a Brexit hardliner called Chris Heaton-Harris.
What we don’t know is whether Johnson gave Truss any steer on where he ultimately wanted the talks to land – if he knows.
But at least we know now who is leading on the negotiations. A month after Frost’s departure, the other parts of his empire are still languishing leaderless in the Cabinet Office waiting for a final “machinery of government” decision.