19 December 2021

Weekly Briefing: Frosty the go man

By

There must be a German word for the kind of week Boris Johnson has just had.

If a massive rebellion against one of the Government’s key Covid policies and a shattering by-election defeat weren’t enough, one of his closest Cabinet allies has just walked out with a gently devastating broadside at the PM’s entire political approach.

What makes this week’s crises especially difficult for Johnson is the way they overlap and feed into each other. Allegations about parties last year reinforce the frustrations felt by both voters and Tory MPs about Covid restrictions this year. Accusations of sleaze are bad enough on their own, but have also led directly to defeat in the Tory shires. And all of this underpinned by the confidence-sapping, Christmas-crushing effects of the Omicron variant.

Although Lord Frost’s resignation letter mentions ‘concerns with the current direction of travel’ and his worries about ‘coercive measures’ to deal with Covid, a lack of progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol undoubtedly weighed heavily on his departure.

Frost had made clear that he would not countenance the European Court of Justice having a remit in Northern Ireland, only for Number 10 to signal earlier this week that the line had gone from red to invisible. Likewise the dialling down of threats to trigger Article 16 suggested the Government was now striking a more emollient tone than the hardball tactics Frost favoured.

On a personal level too, a role characterised by ‘endless, exhausting skirmishes with Brussels’ – to quote a source in the Mail on Sunday – was less than enticing. The recent backtracking also suggests the PM would rather focus on steadying the ship domestically than launch into another drawn out battle with Brussels. As ever, of course, the views of people in Northern Ireland itself appear something of an afterthought.

Even if they may not be the main reason for his resignation, Frost’s concerns about the Government’s overall approach are worth examining. In particular, his remarkably frank speech to the Centre for Policy Studies’ Margaret Thatcher Conference at the end of November, which offered a Maggie-esque argument about the power of free markets and the dangers of replicating the ‘European social model’. With the benefit of hindsight, those remarks seem to have been delivered more in sorrow than expectation.

They also underline the extent to which the PM is caught between two stools. Having delivered a Brexit backed by non-traditional Conservatives in what has rapidly become post-Labour England, he now faces the task of placating both them and more traditional blue voters, whose priorities are rather different.

It might be hoping too much for the PM to suddenly pivot to a true blue, supply-side economic agenda. That said, pure pragmatism may yet force him to dial down the tax rises that so disquiet some natural Conservative supporters. With inflation hitting 5.1% in November and Covid already depressing activity, the last thing voters need is the hit to their pay packet scheduled for April – timing that looks particularly inauspicious ahead of local elections in May.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.