David Frost – the man who took a knife to a gunfight – calls it a day

Just as the ghost of Christmas past was coming back to haunt the Prime Minister, the ghost of Brexit Britain future, Lord Frost, dealt him a hammer blow. As we approach our fifth Brexit Secretary in as many years, our ‘Whitehall Correspondent’, John Walker, takes a lighthearted look at what may have driven the resignation.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley by Arthur Rackham, pen, ink and watercolor, from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, 1915

“Get Brexit done” was the slogan chosen by the Conservatives for the 2019 election. The other option, “Please God, just make it stop” was discarded as, at six words, too intellectually challenging for their target audience.  From the beginning, David Frost was at the fore of the ‘getting done’ challenge. The need was clear, the call was made; to have a deal agreed by Christmas. Any deal.

It didn’t matter that Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister, had promised the DUP that there would be no trade border in the Irish sea, just get the signature on the paper and sort out any details later.

Fishing, agriculture, the union, non-tariff trade barriers, financial services were all too trivial to worry about. The deal was signed with an agreed explicit trade border in the Irish sea.

Now its signed, thought Frost, I can go into negotiating the details talking tough and knowing that the Prime Minister, the ERG and the Brexit press have my back. As far as he was concerned he was going into a knife fight with a gun.

By the time we actually left the EU on 31 December 2020, the DUP were waking up to what they had failed to notice, and the White House would soon have a change of resident. Still, nothing to worry about that a few threats and reinterpretations of the truth couldn’t sort out.

Unfortunately, even if Joe Biden had missed it at first, he soon cottoned on to the threat of a customs border in Ireland and Johnson was told that if he didn’t comply with the Northern Ireland Protocol, he could kiss goodbye to any deal with the US. Perhaps it was the congratulatory note Joe received from the UK government when he first took over: the one that had “congratulations Mr Trump” crossed out and Biden’s name hastily inserted that failed to put a smile on his face. Since Kennedy, American presidents were significantly better disposed to the Irish than the Brits.

Now, the EU knew that they had Frost over a barrel. It was Frost who had turned up with a knife and the EU had the guns. Worse, when he expected a fine Toledo-steel blade, what he had was a butter knife with “property of Wetherspoons” stamped into it.

This is reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault says, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here”

He tried his best, but it really became clear that he was in for the silver medal in a two man fight when the Americans did the dirty on the French by taking their submarines deal with Australia. The Americans don’t like to be seen as the bad guys, not while trying to repair the damage to their reputation done by Trump. And the French needed someone to blame, though preferably for the sake of diplomacy, not the Americans. So Biden ropes in Johnson as his bag carrier to take the blame.

David Frost has now seen his chance to get out. He has learned the bombast to say he has too much integrity to remain as part of such an illiberal government who puts up taxes and imposes Covid passports. This is reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault says, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here” while the waiter hands him his winnings.

He already has his payment. A seat in the Lords, while he would have accepted a knighthood (he would love to have been given a GCMG, just to be able to turn to his ex-colleagues in King Charles Street and tell them to stick it for dismissing him as not being of the right academic calibre for the FO).

He also had a seat in Cabinet but he would have to give that up as inappropriate for an unelected bureaucrat to have a say in how the country was run (where had he heard that argument before?).

So it was time to go.

He had received a Christmas present, gifts prepared for Johnson and the Cabinet by the 1922 committee. He, himself, had received a nice bottle of festive spirit and, somewhat belatedly, the gun that would have been useful in the fight with Brussel’s bureaucrats. Why else would they give him a bottle of well-aged single malt and a pearl-handled revolver?

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