Brexit with a touch of Frost

 By Tiffany Burrows

From 1 March, the Prime Minister’s Brexit Adviser, Lord Frost , will join the Cabinet Office as a Minister of State, leading on the UK’s new relationship with the EU. The appointment, announced last week, will see Frost attend Cabinet. .

Frost’s appointment to the Cabinet makes him more accountable than his previous role as – in effect – a Special Adviser to the PM, although as Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry argued  on Twitter, it still leaves him as “someone who has never been elected by anyone in this country, and [who] won’t be accountable in the House of Commons to any of us who have.”

Rumours of Frost threatening to leave his current position aside, his appointment is a clear indication that while the Government “got Brexit done”, it is far from over. Former UK Permanent Representative to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers emphasised that the appointment is a recognition that the UK’s relationship with the EU is “an ongoing and indeed permanent negotiation”, something that is certainly true in the case of services.  Frost’s reputation as being, well, frosty, when it comes to his EU counterparts suggests that we should not expect tensions between the UK and the EU to disappear overnight, particularly with the loose ends still to be resolved from both the trade deal itself and the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Lord Frost’s new role with see him replace Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove as the Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes responsibility over the Northern Ireland Protocol and managing the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Speaking of frosty, the rumour mill was whirring with insinuations that Frost’s appointment meant the side lining of Gove (who, while giving Frost’s appointment his public backing, is reportedly “not thrilled” about the change). Whilst it is true that Gove previously had this responsibility and losing it can be spun as a blow to his authority, it’s also true that the Conservative Government is increasingly concerned about the state of the Union, and we know Gove is seen as one of the key ministers co-ordinating the fightback against the SNP . It is therefore not surprising that the Prime Minister would prefer for one of his most senior Cabinet Minister to be spending his time focussing on saving the Union and not splitting his focus in too many directions. That being said, Frost’s appointment has also raised flags that the anticipated reshuffle may be coming sooner rather than later, with suggestions that Gove could himself be moved to another big department.

The other nose suspected to have been put out of joint is Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was naturally where the diplomatic relationships between the UK Government and its counterparts in the EU sat, with the FCO’s Minister for Europe holding the European Union within their portfolio. However, the siphoning off of responsibilities to the Cabinet Office – first under Gove and now under Frost – leaves the now FDCO with less involvement in this space. For example, current FCDO Minister Wendy Morton MP, as the pithily named Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas, only has responsibility for East and South-East Europe.

Given this change was made prior to Frost’s appointment, the fact and that Raab absorbed an entire Department’s responsibilities and the UK’s presidency of the G7, amongst other things, it is unlikely that last week’s changes will be perceived by Raab as an operational snub. It does however increase the weight of the already influential Cabinet Office and its Ministers as advisers to the Prime Minister.

The Cabinet Office has an incredibly broad remit. Predominantly, its role is ‘supporting collective government, helping to ensure the effective development, coordination and implementation of policy’ which has seen its ministers taking the lead on issues such as the Union, COVID-19, and constitutional, political, and civil service reform. Since the abolition of the short-lived Department for Exiting the Union (DExEU), and arguably during its tenure, the Cabinet Office has also played a leading role in setting the UK’s approach and relationship with the EU following the referendum. It’s therefore not unusual that responsibilities for handling such an all-encompassing relationship, such as the UK’s with the EU, are being sucked in to the ‘corporate headquarters for government’.

But of course it’s less about the Cabinet Office itself and more about Lord Frost and the relationship with the EU becoming one role, rather than spread across many.  On the one hand, Frost knows the institutions and characters involved on the EU side, has a successful negotiating record, and is aligned with the Prime Minister’s approach to our European neighbours. On the other hand, his known combative style, not to mention the impact of ruffled feathers in the Cabinet, could lead to increased tensions. Let’s see if the Frost will thaw…