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Making Lord Frost cabinet minister for EU relations makes sense – and suggests a hostile strategy

With Lord Frost's appointment, strategy will be more ‘hardline’ than flexible, says Maddy Thimont Jack

While Lord Frost’s appointment should bring welcome co-ordination and accountability to the UK’s post-Brexit strategy, it also suggests that the strategy will be more ‘hardline’ than flexible, says Maddy Thimont Jack

A recently-published IfG paper set out the need for central co-ordination to oversee the implementation of the recently agreed Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) and Northern Ireland protocol, and the UK’s strategy for engagement with the EU. The appointment of Lord Frost as a minister in the Cabinet Office leading on post-Brexit strategy and UK chair of both the Partnership Council and the Joint Committee from 1 March 2020, suggests the government agrees.

Aside from the slightly odd timing, just two days after Michael Gove was announced as the interim co-chair of the Partnership Council, this appointment makes sense. Frost was chief negotiator on both agreements (the TCA and the renegotiated protocol), meaning he is already across the detail. Crucially, he is also trusted by the prime minister.

However, it was common knowledge that Frost took a hardline ‘sovereigntist’ approach in the Brexit negotiations. This suggests he may be less willing to compromise on the implementation of an agreement he has just negotiated. With extremely sensitive negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol ongoing, this position may undermine any attempt to find a resolution.  

Central government co-ordination makes sense for managing the UK–EU relationship

At the beginning of the year there was much speculation about which department would end up taking responsibility for the UK–EU relationship, with both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade candidates. But the UK–EU relationship is so much bigger than just trade or foreign affairs. The TCA includes provisions on security, transport and fish, and departments across Whitehall will need to be involved in ongoing negotiations and implementation.

The TCA also has implications for the devolved administrations and future domestic regulatory policy, as well as the UK’s approach to trade negotiations with other nations. The separate arrangements relating to Northern Ireland under the protocol mean EU law will continue to be relevant to one part of the UK, and changes to GB rules will matter for the ‘depth’ of the border in the Irish Sea.

It therefore makes sense for the Cabinet Office to play that centralising co-ordinating role – joining up both domestic regulatory and trade policy (as it has done in the past with EU policy). Appointing a minister to cabinet with the EU portfolio recognises just how important this relationship will be – and Frost’s close relationship with Boris Johnson should give him clout across Whitehall. But that won’t be true for Frost across the UK, and he will need to improve on the shaky engagement with the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast which dogged the Brexit negotiations.

As a minister, Lord Frost will be more accountable and have more formal authority

This isn’t the first job change for Lord Frost in 2021. He started the year as national security adviser before gaining a new job at the beginning of February as the prime minister’s Brexit and international policy representative – overseeing the strategic approach to the UK’s relationship with the EU but alongside a minister representing the UK in the Partnership Council (as specified in the TCA). His latest move, therefore, consolidates the two roles in one. Even if some of the press briefings suggest it was a result of internal clashes in No.10, clearer roles and responsibilities will make it easier to set direction.

Frost served as chief negotiator but had the status of a special adviser – this appointment resolves some of the problems that presented. While he did appear before both the Future Relationship with the EU Committee in the Commons, as well as the Lords EU Committee – alongside Michael Gove – when chief negotiator, as a special adviser he did not answer questions on the floor of the House. Frost will now face scrutiny in the House of Lords and he should continue to appear on the (virtual) committee corridor when invited.

As a minister he will also be formally allowed to direct civil servants – although there is still no indication of the size and seniority of the new international unit he will be overseeing. In practice, civil servants would have needed to take account of his views as they always do with special advisers, but there was considerable potential for crossed wires and confused lines of accountability. This is a clearer structure.

But while Frost is a politician ‘on the up’, he is still ‘only’ a minister of state – and his influence will depend on whether he continues to agree with the prime minister.   

Lord Frost’s appointment won’t reset the UK’s relations with the EU

Lord Frost’s vision for the UK’s relationship with the EU was clear: he prized freedom to diverge from EU rules over market access, and his approach in the TCA negotiations was confrontational. The UK government’s decision to include international rule-breaking provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill reportedly was his idea. However, he has experience in Brussels and has an understanding of how the EU works – and given his role in the negotiations, is a ‘known quantity’ for those on the other side of the channel.

But his appointment suggests Johnson has endorsed a continuation of the more combative approach to the EU. This could have implications much closer to home. Lord Frost will also be co-chair of the Joint Committee, the UK–EU forum where incredibly sensitive negotiations on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol are ongoing. Lord Frost takes up his new role on 1 March, and solutions to issues around checks surrounding agri-food for supermarkets need to be found before the grace-period runs out at the end of that month. Michael Gove, the current UK chair, reportedly had a good relationship with his counterpart Maros Sefcovic – if Frost wants to take a different approach then he must show that his method works better than Gove’s. Gove also worked to build relations, and represent, the different communities in Northern Ireland – it is vital Lord Frost does the same, and quickly.

While this appointment draws different strands of the UK–EU relationship into one place in the government, it also places them squarely in the hands of one person. In his previous role, David Frost was a key player in setting out a relationship for the EU and the UK for the future. It is now his responsibility to make that relationship work in the present.

Country (international)
European Union
Institute for Government

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