Every revolution “evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy”, said Franz Kafka. Britain’s Brexit revolution is evaporating now and leaving behind the slime of David Frost.
The most damning criticism of the Brexit that Frost negotiated is that not one industry or trade can say that, however greatly others are suffering, we at least are benefiting from being outside the EU. Even fishermen and women, whose precarious lives were exploited with such cynicism by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, are finding they must fill in 71 pages of paperwork to export one lorry of fish, as new bureaucracy extends to every fishing village in the land.
Yet, while the country suffers, no one has done better than Frost. His rise mirrors Britain’s fall. At the time of the Brexit referendum, he was just Mr David Frost. He went to Oxford University but left no impression. His tutor told Prospect magazine he had fond memories of Frost’s “brilliant” tutorial partner, who went on to be a professor. But of the man who was to impose the hardest of Brexits, the man whose name will be for ever associated with the narrowing of the horizons of millions, “I remember nothing at all about him”.
Frost moved from Oxford to the Foreign Office, where he became a figure familiar in many workplaces: the frustrated middle manager, whose resentment at an indifferent world that overlooks him gnaws at his pride. Do not underestimate the anger of the men no one remembers.
Frost became Britain’s ambassador to Denmark. It was a decent job – who wouldn’t enjoy free board and lodging in a smart Copenhagen home? But it was “not a serious job”, as a senior Conservative politician put it to me. The most sensitive task at the embassy is managing relations between the British and Danish armed forces “and that is dealt with by the defence attache”.
Frost was going nowhere. John Kerr, a former head of the diplomatic service, described his former staffer as being “very diligent and conscientious, good at carrying out instructions, not always as good at querying instructions”. Kerr didn’t mean it as a compliment. Frost became a director of strategy at the Foreign Office and a director for Europe at the business department. Good jobs, once again, but not serious jobs: not permanent secretary or ambassador to the UN. He quit in 2013 to join the Scotch Whisky Association, and that appeared to be that. A civil service colleague who was at his leaving party told me: “He had a chip on his shoulder about not being promoted. I’d say he was definitely right of centre at the time but he wasn’t a hardcore Brexiteer.” But then nor was Boris Johnson. For Frost, like Johnson, Brexit was an opportunity. He began to flash come-hither smiles at the Tory right after the referendum. In pieces for the Telegraph, he said we must “stop flapping” about Brexit and realise that this “great country” would be successful “whatever we do”.
These were odd sentiments for the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association. Yanking the UK out of the single market was to kick the whisky business along with so many other businesses. But for an ex-diplomat with frustrated ambitions, vacuous boosterism was the smart career move.
When Kerr said Frost was “not always as good at querying instructions” he was describing every man or woman who has climbed a hierarchy by sucking up to the boss.
Johnson recognised a useful servant, and called him in. He took to greeting him as “Frosty”, telling everyone within earshot that here was his new pal and banter buddy ready to play along in the great game of Brexit. In 2016, Johnson, then the foreign secretary, made Frosty his special adviser. In 2020, he turned Frosty, the former Mr David Frost, into Baron Frost, of Allenton in the county of Derbyshire – an extraordinary breach of the constitutional principle that a government adviser should not have a seat in legislature. Last week, Baron Frost shifted shape again as Johnson elevated him to the rank of cabinet minister with responsibility for dealing with the EU.
For years, liberals have warned about the danger of politicians corrupting the independence of the civil service. The inexorable rise of David Frost is a lesson to us. It shows there are civil servants who so want to be politicised that they yearn to become politicians, as long as they do not have to stand for election in the process.
His cabinet post may work out for him but it will not work for the rest of us. I can predict it with certainty because the hard Brexit deal he negotiated was a disaster and, crucially, a disaster on its own terms. Frost went into the negotiations saying that the EU simply did not understand the nationalist wave sweeping Europe. The UK was “not prepared to compromise”. We were a free and sovereign country and Brussels had better get used to it.
Frost played hardball by persuading Johnson to threaten to break international law. He only made the EU hit back harder. It demanded the UK adhere to labour, environment and state aid laws or else, and a weak, meek Britain accepted. Brexit had “the most onerous level-playing-field terms the EU has demanded”, the government’s former trade official David Henig told me. Even communist China got a better deal.
Does Frosty realise it? I ask because last week his “friends” were briefing political correspondents that he would take an “assertive role” over the border in the Irish Sea that he and the other defenders of the nation state agreed to as they partitioned the actual nation state of the UK. Does he not see how he will fail again? Does he not realise that Brexit left the UK isolated and deluded, and choking in a level of paperwork that can only be described as Kafkaesque?
Perhaps all he sees is how well he has done. From Mr Frost to Frosty to Baron Frost to cabinet minister Frost is one hell of a rise. Not bad for a lad whose political career seemed over in 2013. Not great for anyone else.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist