Friday, 10 September 2021

Betamax Frost is an obstacle to a viable post-Brexit strategy

There’s something like an emerging consensus that the Afghanistan crisis has also created a crisis for Britain’s post-Brexit geo-political strategy and, in particular, shows both the emptiness of the ‘Global Britain’ slogan and the urgent need to increase co-operation with the EU. It’s a message that can be found in recent articles by former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts, by the Observer’s Chief Political Commentator Andrew Rawnsley and, perhaps more surprisingly so therefore more significantly, by pro-Brexit Times columnist Iain Martin (£). Within the Conservative Party it can be seen in the comments of Tom Tugenhadt and Tobias Ellwood, amongst others.

Of course many people realized from the outset that Brexit was going to create such a crisis, not least because it was so clearly a victory for Putin’s anti-UK and anti-EU policies – the Afghanistan issue has just hastened it and made it more visible. That arises from one of the key flaws in the Brexit case, which always insisted that Britain’s security needs were entirely met by NATO (meaning, in effect, the US), whilst all attempts to develop an EU foreign and defence policy were treated as illegitimate and indeed as a reason to leave. More crudely, during the referendum, any discussion of the geo-political consequences of Brexit was shut down using the ‘so World War Three will break out if we leave?’ straw man.

Subsequently, the government’s attempt to articulate its Global Britain strategy in the ‘Integrated Review’ made only passing references to the EU, and Boris Johnson’s stated aim of “leaving the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy” underscored that he wanted to act as if Britain’s strategic place in the world could be detached from its geographical place in the world. Exactly the same objective is apparent in relation Britain’s economic place in what Brexiters like to call the “post-geography trading world”.

The strategic logic for post-Brexit Britain

This was always foolish, if only because – as Brexiters themselves were wont to say – ‘we are leaving the EU, we’re not leaving Europe’. The implications of that truism are starting to be belatedly recognized in both geo-politics and economics. There’s a kind of Alice through the looking glass feeling in the words of the newly appointed Trade Commissioner for Europe, which speak of the huge importance of trade with the EU and of the need to work “with businesses and governments across the continent to remove barriers to trade”. It need hardly be said that … no, really, it need hardly be said. Still, it is a recognition, of sorts, of reality.

That recognition is also evident in some of the ‘quiet realism’ I’ve described in recent posts about the limited possibilities for regulatory divergence from the EU. For example, despite the current bluster about diverging from EU GDPR rules it seems almost certain that, when it comes to it, the government will realise that this would have few benefits but carry the massive costs (£) of losing EU approval of UK data protection rules as equivalent to GDPR. The pull of the EU regulatory orbit is too great for a country of Britain’s size and economic integration with the EU to resist. Divergence is simply too expensive, as has in fact been obvious since the 2017 Data Protection Bill was announced even as hard Brexit was being pursued.

Thus the strategic logic of post-Brexit Britain is getting clearer almost by the day. It’s not just that regulatory divergence is too expensive. It is also that continued de facto regulatory alignment makes it pointless to continue to refuse de jure alignment. That is because retaining the theoretical right to diverge (e.g. on Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary [SPS] regulations, which are also central to the Northern Ireland situation) whilst still in practice remaining mainly or entirely aligned makes no sense, or at least it only makes sense to theological Brexiters as an exercise in theoretical sovereignty. No doubt there will be a few exceptions, but that is the general logic of the situation.

Beyond regulatory issues, that logic suggests working in close and harmonious partnership with the EU across a wide range of security, diplomatic, environmental and possibly military endeavours. It’s not an ideal situation but, within the range of those currently politically viable for post-Brexit Britain, it is the best available. Anyone tempted to dismiss this as ‘remainer defeatism’ should recall that such harmony was precisely what many leave campaigners promised as a benefit of Brexit, replacing the antagonism arising from supposed ‘compulsion’ with a cooperation based upon making choices based on the UK’s own interests. It is only more recently that Brexiters have insisted on independence at all costs from anything European, regardless of UK interests.

To the extent that strategic logic points in the direction of a relationship with the EU that is both substantially harmonized and harmonious, it’s a reasonable expectation that at some point in the future a British government will take that path. But manifestly it is not inevitable that governments will act with strategic logic and, most certainly, it is unlikely that the present government will do so. For even as the force of that logic becomes clearer, Johnson’s approach to Brexit – as enacted by David Frost – remains one of antagonism which precludes acting on it.

Frost returns for autumn

That this approach is set to continue was made abundantly clear by Frost this week, both in a major speech and in a written statement to parliament. For all the mention in the speech of not wanting “a fractious or difficult relationship with the EU”, he was unable to resist multiple jibes suggesting just the opposite. Crucially, he made it clear that he does not accept the fundamental tenets of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP): “the difficulties come from the way the Protocol is constructed, not just the way it is being implemented”.

An obvious retort would be that he was the UK’s chief negotiator when it was agreed in 2019, but, as in the past, he made clear that he regards this as having happened because of the constraints inherited from May’s administration, constraints which wouldn’t have existed had “we” (meaning Johnson’s administration) been in charge at that time. For this reason, he evidently feels no shame, or even any sense of inconsistency, in reneging on what he agreed because he feels no genuine responsibility for having made the agreement.

This, as with other claims he makes, entails a ludicrous re-writing of history, but it’s important to understand that – in my view, although of course I am not inside their heads – both Johnson and Frost genuinely believe this stuff (for a longer discussion of Frost’s approach, see my post from last March). That matters, because it explains their present stance. In particular, they believe that May failed to negotiate properly because she didn’t believe in Brexit, that the removal of the backstop was a triumph of their ‘hardball’ negotiation, and that the subsequent threat to violate the NIP with the Internal Market Bill was what led to the TCA being agreed. Most fundamentally, they believe that the entire Northern Ireland border issue was fabricated by the EU in order to stymie Brexit and only gained prominence because May allowed it to. It’s significant that all of these beliefs have recently been affirmed by Dominic Cummings.

These may sound like outlandish statements to many readers of this blog, but they are entirely commonplace, and in no way controversial, in Brexiter circles. As such they are now baked in as articles of faith, certainly for Frost who has re-made himself by embracing them. Johnson seems to have lost interest in Brexit policy entirely, and has subcontracted it to Frost. It’s conceivable - given the general plasticity of his beliefs which, in a sense, mean that the term ‘articles of faith’ is a misnomer in his case - that he might change approach and dump Frost if he saw some advantage in it, of which more below, despite the furore it would provoke amongst Tory backbench Brexiters. But for now he too apparently shares this boilerplate Brexiter analysis of how the NIP came about.

The resumption of the Protocol row

What these beliefs about the past now lead to is the proposition that if the UK pushes hard enough then the EU will abandon the substance of the NIP, including abandoning its refusal to grant SPS regulatory equivalence rather than the UK agreeing regulatory alignment. In this way, both the substance and the tone of the NIP row are indeed blocks both to regulatory harmonization and to the creation of a harmonious relationship which strategic logic mandates.

Central to that approach is the threat to invoke Article 16. It is notable that Frost this week re-issued this threat, along with the unsubstantiated claim that the conditions needed to justify its invocation already exist.  Many sensible commentators rightly say that this would not resolve anything, but would merely exacerbate existing uncertainties and tensions. Such commentors also rightly point out that Frost’s words are at odds with his stated aim of creating the basis for negotiating and resolving problems.

However, we are not in the realm of the ‘sensible’ conduct of international relations. For Frost-Johnson the exacerbation of existing problems is not a failure but a desirable result because it is painful for those – in this case the EU – who persist in playing by the ‘normal’ rules, and seen as a route to total victory rather than to a compromise. Again it is an approach derived from Dominic Cummings’ time in Downing Street (and in the Vote Leave campaign), and embraced by Frost who was in Cummings’ inner circle at the time.

This is what they mean by playing hardball, and they genuinely believe it will lead the EU to re-negotiate the entire NIP. If nothing else, they think that the longer the negotiations go on, the more the unimplemented parts of the NIP will become normalized and EU claims about their necessity will be undermined. If in the process UK-EU relations are further soured then that is taken as a sign that their approach is ‘working’ – and in any case gives them a boost with pro-Brexit MPs and voters.

A looming crisis?

This isn’t going to explode immediately. As was widely expected, this week Frost announced that the UK will extend the various grace periods that were due to expire at the end of the month, and the EU has ‘taken note’ of this (i.e. accepted it). Significantly, unlike previous extensions, there was no date set. The UK position is to want a ‘standstill’ in the existing situation, whilst the EU was clear at the time of the previous extension that it was only a temporary solution. In the latest UK statement the word ‘extension’ is not used – the formulation is just that the UK will “continue to operate the Protocol on its current basis” – and the EU statement says nothing about timeframes.

So, for now, there is a fudge on that, but one which Frost will regard as very much in his favour and, tellingly, the pro-Brexit Telegraph immediately crowed that this was “a major concession” by the EU (£). What I think the EU has failed fully to appreciate is that in Frost’s Cummings-inspired negotiating approach any flexibility or conciliation is banked as a concession and chalked up as a sign that his intransigence works, not as cue for reciprocation.

The EU also continues to pause its legal action over the first, unilateral, extension the UK announced in March and Frost will see that, too, as a victory and vindication. It has yet to respond to the UK’s Command Paper of July setting out the government’s current approach. Once it does, which is expected to be at the end of this month, there will be a lot of sound and fury because what cannot be fudged forever is the fundamental difference between what the UK is now demanding and what was agreed in the NIP (for detail, see my discussion at the time of the Command Paper). At some point this will become a crisis, but how quickly is less clear than it would have been with a defined end date to the new extensions.

When and how the crisis comes will partly depend on the UK. Implicit in Frost’s parliamentary statement is that he might deem that there is no basis for further ‘constructive’ discussions. That is presumably code for an early invocation of Article 16. One counter-argument to doing so is the point made earlier – that the longer the grace periods remain in place with the NIP otherwise functioning, the greater the chance they might continue indefinitely. On that logic, Frost might drag the talks on for as long as possible rather than collapse them.

It will also depend on whether the EU is prepared to be robust in its responses, and if so then to what extent. Thus far, in its willingness to extend grace periods and to pause to legal action, the EU has seemed keen to dampen down and postpone conflict. If that continues it could play into the hands of Frost precisely because suspended implementation could become a permanent reality, and in any case would serve to confirm in his mind the efficacy of his approach.

According to RTE’s Tony Connelly – and he’s almost always right about such things - the EU is currently willing to offer some further flexibilities within the NIP framework but is also testing to see whether there is any flexibility in the UK position of effectively abandoning that framework. If so, that is still based on the misapprehension that Frost’s approach is one of the give-and-take of ‘normal’ negotiations. The problem for the EU remains, as I’ve discussed before, “how to react to a country that constantly behaves in a hostile manner, but hasn’t quite gone rogue”. Much will depend on how it answers that question in the coming weeks.

Domestic politics

However, there are potentially also domestic considerations in play for the government. Whilst an ongoing fight with the EU over the NIP would play well with its core supporters, it could go very badly indeed with wider public opinion if it comes at the same time as a worsening of the labour and supply chain crisis and especially if that crisis is widely attributed to Brexit (hence the importance of where that narrative settles, as discussed in last week’s post). With growing threats of shortages of toys and consumer electronics in the run up to Christmas (£) and of food shortages extending into the new year (£) it could be a bleak time.

In this context, it will be interesting and important to see whether the government introduces import controls, the first main phase being due to start on October 1, which, to spell it out, is only three weeks away, and the second on New Year’s Day. My hunch is that it will postpone again rather than risk the further disruptions that major retailers are warning of.

At all events, it’s not inconceivable that with all this going on the public, including plenty of Tory voters, may become sick and tired with the constant aggravation over the NIP. It’s even possible there will be a resumption of the Jersey fishing row. Yet Brexit, people were promised, would ‘get done’ with Johnson’s election victory. Interestingly, Frost has recently changed his Twitter profile to read “you don’t get something for nothing, you can’t have freedom for free”, but many leave voters might come to recall that no such trade-off was suggested to them when Johnson declared that they could have their cake and eat it. That could also get linked to criticisms of him having broken other manifesto pledges, such as those on national insurance and pensions.

Such a situation would be yet another opportunity for Keir Starmer’s Labour to capitalize on the post-Brexit mess. For, apart from the obvious open goal of the supply crisis, what is opening up, as a result of Afghanistan and (in the scenario I’ve just painted) public impatience with ongoing conflicts with the EU over the NIP, is a space for a distinctive and pragmatic post-Brexit foreign policy. It could even be presented, for the reason alluded to earlier, as the delivery of Brexit in the foreign policy arena. After all, it was the Vote Leave campaign that promised “better relations with our European friends” (p.15 of link).

Ditching Frost?

In this scenario, Johnson might seek to deprive Labour of the opportunity by taking it for himself. To do so, a necessary but not sufficient condition is ditching Frost. Few can doubt that if Johnson sees that as being in his interest – the only calculation that matters to him – he will do it. This could allow a recalibration towards a better relationship with the EU, especially if assisted by some face-saving concessions from Brussels over the NIP, which are arguably possible without jettisoning the entire framework (£). Accepting such concessions rather than demanding an all-out renegotiation would become possible with Frost out of the picture.

That in turn could be a prelude to the kind of strategic shift that logic suggests will eventually come, although it’s unlikely that Johnson could fully effect such a shift. That’s not because he is a committed Brexiter – he has never been that – so much as because of his general lack of ability to formulate and follow through on anything at all, and what even his most enthusiastic supporters would admit is a lack of anything resembling ‘statesmanship’. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that he has some interest in ‘performing’ statesmanship, but no aptitude for its delivery. So any serious and substantive re-set of UK-EU relations is unlikely under Johnson – who is understandably loathed and distrusted across the EU – and probably under any Conservative Prime Minister whilst the diehard Brexit Ultras remain a powerful force in parliament and the media.

In short, there is a place that UK-EU relations can settle, albeit one that will please neither the most committed Brexiters nor the most committed remainers, which has a strategic logic to it given that Brexit has happened. But there are several obstacles to that, the first being David Frost. Whilst his removal would not guarantee anything changing for the better, for so long as he is in post it can be guaranteed that nothing will change for the better. For as the realities of Brexit, both economically and geo-politically, emerge at pace his embrace of a Betamax theory of sovereignty and an adolescent apprehension of international negotiation is increasingly being exposed as not just fatuous but redundant.


I will be taking a break from blogging until October 1, and hope that the diagnosis, above, that there will be no immediate crisis proves correct. But if you haven’t done so, then in the meantime why not read my book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) recounting and analysing what happened from the referendum result to the end of the transition period, which was published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book. For reviews, podcasts etc. see this page.

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