The social libertarian reasons David Frost has given for quitting the government such as the “direction of travel” on Covid restrictions and increased taxes are hardly the whole story. For if he thought he looked like winning in the Protocol negotiations he would surely not have quit. His letter to Johnson smacks of the same disingenuousness as his Protocol reports – a hard line written in the language of sweet reasonableness. Frost knows very well he has set Johnson a new and excruciating dilemma ; whether to settle with the EU or appoint another hard line Brexiteer to continue the struggle. The Brexiteer right, already close to giving up on Johnson, are dismayed by what they fear is yet another surrender to what they contemptuously call “the blob”; the nameless establishment they believe still call the shots despite being smashed in the 2019 general election but are only really the pragmatic voices of reason.
Frost’s own article in the FT on Friday – written when he had already submitted his delayed action resignation – now reads like a valedictory. In it he argues that apart from EU concessions on medicines, all the substantive issues remain including a role for the European Court of Justice.
..what Brussels has put on the table does not do enough to ease the burdens or cover the full range of problems faced by people in Northern Ireland. The burdensome customs arrangements for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland need to be changed drastically, given the overwhelming importance to the Northern Ireland economy of links with the rest of the UK, far outweighing its links with Ireland. The simplest solution is to put in place substantively different arrangements for goods that all sides agree will stay in the UK and those that will not, and to manage any risks arising in a collaborative way. The EU’s proposals do not do this and our expert analysis does not support the ambitious public claims made for them when they were published. Similarly, Northern Ireland’s state aid rules need to reflect the reality that, since the protocol was signed, we have agreed entirely new subsidy control rules in our free trade agreement, and put in place a new and rigorous domestic regime. The rules in Northern Ireland should evolve to reflect this.
And a solution must be found on governance — the undemocratic ways in which EU laws are applied in Northern Ireland, and the role of the ECJ. I know sometimes people dismiss this as an ideological demand. But no solution can work if the European Commission can get the ECJ to sit in judgment upon any of our actions, as happened in March. That kind of hair-trigger response is not the right way to achieve sustainable solutions in Northern Ireland and it is anyway obviously unfair and unreasonable for disputes between us to be settled by the court of one of the parties.
We would prefer to find a comprehensive solution to these and the full range of other difficulties. But, given the urgency, we have been ready to consider an interim agreement covering the most acute problems — trade frictions, subsidy control, and the ECJ.
An “interim agreement “ is where we’re at. But compare Frost’s stated position with the FT’s own report the same day on the totemic issue of the ECJ . It had been speculated in earlier reports that Frost’s own officials were outflanking him on the ECJ on the nod from Downing St. But not so, claims the FT now.
(UK Sources say) “The change of line on Brexit and Northern Ireland deal was not at the heart of it. These last three months it was Frost who proposed the shift on the role of the ECJ — he has been keener on pushing for a deal with Brussels than the prime minister,” they added. The UK is expected to tell the EU that governance issues can wait until they have agreed on practical ways to improve the flow of goods between the region and the rest of the UK. The UK has indicated that it could accept an arbitration mechanism of the kind that governs other elements of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, which leaves the ECJ as the arbiter of EU law but puts the court at one remove from resolving disputes over the protocol..
…the solution on medicines, which government officials privately acknowledged will ensure that Northern Ireland has the same access to medicines as the rest of the UK, marked a positive end to several months of at-times fractious negotiations that have poisoned the wider EU-UK relationships. It was welcomed by the pharmaceutical industry in both the EU and the UK. In a joint statement the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) said the EU proposal created a “strong footing for a long-term resolution”
UK –EU talks are due to resume on 14 January. Who will lead the British side and with what mandate? Political logic suggests that Johnson will defy his increasingly restive right wing over the Protocol as over the far more urgent matter of further Covid restrictions, but at the cost of a further widening of the splits within the Conservative party and weakening his own position. But logic in this fraught situation may not apply.
And note that in all of this nobody is thinking about the DUP .
So Liz Truss the foreign secretary the darling on the Right takes over the Brexit role. She has no known interest in NI. In a largely untested career, she has spent two years on an easy wicket, cutting and pasting the UK ‘s trading arrangements within the EU into a few free standing treaties. So far. these have made little difference to the UK”s volume of trade and national wealth. Once a Remainer Truss was miraculously reborn as one of the strongest supporters of BJ and a hard Brexit. This will be the major test of her career. Being almost comically ambitious, she likely to take the line that best promotes her as BJ’s successor – if she can identify it. Article 16 is ready and waiting to be brandished; but looks increasingly like an empty threat. Frost resigned at least in part because BJ has no stomach for a major battle with EU on top of all his other woes. Will Truss reverse that position or live within it? We simply have no idea.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London