Lord Frost became a member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, in charge of relations with the European Union, only on Monday. He has wasted no time in wielding the wrecking ball. On Tuesday, he told the EU that Britain would unilaterally extend the “grace period” for checks on mainly food-related goods that ship between Britain and Northern Ireland. This has triggered a major row with the EU, done serious harm to Britain’s longstanding relations with Ireland, and significantly ramped up the political tensions in Northern Ireland. Lord Frost’s impact is seriously alarming. The effect on Britain’s standing with the US administration, and in the world, threatens to be dire. Thank goodness he never became national security adviser, as was once planned.
The cabinet office minister may see all this as a good first week’s work for an ardent hard Brexiter like himself. He will doubtless be cheered on by the usual xenophobic parts of the Tory party and the press. But this approach disables trust in the British government at home and abroad. Lord Frost’s reckless actions do nothing but damage to Britain’s international standing, show disrespect to our nearest and best international neighbour, and crank up an increasingly confrontational mood in Northern Ireland politics after two decades of peace. This has to stop, and it has to stop now. Boris Johnson must call Lord Frost off – or sack him.
It is three months since Lord Frost, in his then capacity as chief Brexit negotiator, solemnly agreed a trade deal with the EU to complete Britain’s already needlessly antagonistic withdrawal from the union. That deal had come close to foundering because of Lord Frost’s readiness to break international treaties. The deal, and the Northern Ireland protocol that was a pivotal part of it, eventually went through. Mr Johnson signed it at the end of the year. Last month, well before the grace periods expire in late March, unionist opinion in Northern Ireland began agitating against the way the protocol creates a border in the Irish Sea. Instead of working with Ireland, the EU and the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland to calm tensions and make useful changes, as his predecessor Michael Gove was doing until a week ago, Lord Frost has barged in and made solutions and mutual trust far more difficult. This is the action of a dangerous recidivist, not a competent minister of the crown.
If Lord Frost is luckier than he deserves, cooler and wiser heads will manage to restore an atmosphere better suited to finding the compromises that the situation requires. This will require Mr Johnson, above all, to put in the necessary hard work to make it possible. So it may not happen. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, who has worked tirelessly to such an end throughout this process, is right to flag up the damage and to stress that the EU may have to bring legal action to get Britain to play by the rules. The European parliament has, meanwhile, paused its ratification process for the EU-UK trade deal. In Northern Ireland, loyalist paramilitary groups have, ominously, just announced that they are withdrawing their previous support for the Good Friday Agreement.
At every stage in the Brexit process, British ministers have promised to work for deep and lasting good relations with the EU after Brexit. Time after time, and again this week over Northern Ireland, those words have proved empty. If Britain is to make a success of Brexit, the pledges must be decisively turned into a consistent reality. Britain’s word must be its bond. If that means Lord Frost’s departure from government, then so be it.