David Frost has resigned from the cabinet in a further blow to Boris Johnson’s flagging authority. Frost, who was Johnson’s chief policy adviser at the Foreign Office, had been the government’s de facto Brexit Secretary but his resignation, according to several familiar with the matter, owed much more to the general direction of the government.
High on Frost’s list of complaints: the government’s ambitious net-zero target, what he perceived as a drift towards a high-tax and high-spend approach and the reintroduction of restrictions on people’s movement and social activity to curb the spread of Covid-19. Frost recently warned that attempting to follow the “European model” while staying outside of the European project would inevitably lead to a worse future for the UK after Brexit than had it remained in the European Union, in a not-particularly coded critique of the government’s policy.
Added to that, although disagreements over the government’s European policy are not a direct cause of Frost’s exit, it “didn’t help” (as one Conservative put it) that in addition to Frost’s general frustrations with the overall trajectory of the Johnson administration, Downing Street has, in recent months, retreated from direct confrontation with the European Union over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Although the line-to-take is that Frost leaves on good terms, the reality is that Frost will know full well that his exit deepens the sense of crisis around Johnson’s government. That his exit is revealed exclusively in the Mail on Sunday, a title that is vitally important both in general elections and in internal Conservative politics, heightens the impact. His exit should be seen for what it is: a damaging blow to the government, from someone who owes their frontline political career to the Prime Minister.
Frost, a Remainer who became a full-throated convert to the hardest of Brexits, is a representative of an important pillar of Johnson’s internal support: one-time Remainers who believe, in the words of one, that it is better to be “all in or all out”: a group that includes Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, but most importantly, Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who is currently seen as one of the two best-placed candidates to replace the Prime Minister in the event of a vacancy.
The other frontrunner, Rishi Sunak, is widely believed to share Frost’s frustrations with the net-zero target, with several ministers blaming the Chancellor for climate measures that fall short on ambition. The number of ministers who have not expressed a degree of frustration at the return of Covid restrictions can be counted on the finger of one hand. Frost’s exit draws further attention to those stress fractures in the government.
Adding to Johnson’s misery, Frost is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Prime Minister: he is a former special adviser who was placed in the House of Lords and brought into the cabinet by Johnson. His continued presence was a signal to committed Brexiteers that Johnson’s government hadn’t gone “soft” on Brexit issues, of which the Northern Ireland protocol is merely the biggest. Now, Johnson is losing the support of Brexiteers, MPs are growing nervous and even ministers who owe their cabinet positions (and seats) to the Prime Minister are fuelling the bad air around him.
In the short term, Frost’s resignation further reduces any prospect of the government imposing additional restrictions on movement or other activities to curb the spread of the Omicron variant and increases the prospect that Boris Johnson’s premiership will not live to see next Christmas.