Lord Frost: “We’ve got to prove that self-government and democracy are the best way forward for people”

By

Lord Frost is not your average politician.

He comes across immediately as simultaneously less political and more ideological than most of his contemporaries in Parliament, perhaps because he is not a politician by trade. He is also authentic and quietly charming, regardless of one’s opinion of his political positions. Throughout my breakfast with him, he was eager to respond to challenge and did so with composure.

Lord Frost made his name through Brexit – as Boris Johnson’s Chief Negotiator for Exiting the European Union and later minister for the Cabinet Office. He remains very enthusiastic about the project whilst emphasising the need to make the most of the opportunity.

It “ought to be appealing whatever people supported [in 2016]…if we give someone a sense of opportunity,…getting the government out of people’s lives, showing the country’s a bit more nimble and different.”

Indeed, many aspects of our conversation ultimately end up back at the issue of Brexit. He argues that the British response to the Ukraine war “vindicates” his view that Britain can more effectively “react quickly and lead” outside of the EU.

When I challenge him on the links between increasing Scottish nationalism and Brexit, he comments that “there’s nowhere else [for the Scottish] to go” other than the UK, characterising Scottish nationalism as fickle, “like a comet.” He encourages the British government to be “robust” and observe the policy that “the state is the state – like every other country in Europe, we don’t allow secession.”

He sees Brexit as a sustainable project, despite its unpopularity amongst the young, but his justification – “people have got other things to do in their lives” than have another fight about Brexit – feels to me like he considers his ideological opponents simply apathetic. Clearly, though, he intends to remain a champion of the Leave cause. One of the two key parts of how he sees his role going forward is as “the voice of the Brexit we did and the fact that Brexit’s a good thing for the country.”

Frost’s other role is to promote “normal conservative policies”, in particular “[neo-]liberal reform and change.” For him, the “red meat” is the key to the Tories winning the next election.

“Half of our voters are sitting on their hands…and I don’t think it’s enough to say ‘well, they have nowhere else to go.’…We need to give people a sense that they can believe that they are electing a Conservative government and one that will go in a certain direction.”

He disagrees with the conventional wisdom that the Tory party has too wide an electorate, with the ‘Red Wall’ voters holding fundamentally different positions to more affluent ‘Blue Wall’ voters: “I do people the credit of believing that when they voted Tory it’s because they wanted Tory policies.”

Frost sees his role going forward as “the voice of the Brexit we did and the fact that Brexit’s a good thing for the country

Frost is a strange mix of establishment insider and outsider. He considers the Civil Service to be inherently pro-EU as “they just think it is natural that Britain should be part of the EU and somewhat unnatural that we’re not.”

He himself was a diplomat for many years, quitting after becoming disillusioned with Civil Service groupthink. He then returned to the same department as a special advisor, a role he found “liberating.” Yet, in particular before the 2019 election, “there was a lot of suppressed hostility and people questioned our legitimacy to come in.” He compares the time after the election to the Normans post-1066: they’d “won the battle but [had]…to operate through a lot of people” from the old establishment.

Frost is not a man afraid to speak his mind.

He considers himself a “purist” in what he says, and he is eager to discuss the importance of freedom of speech. Frost is in Durham with The Pinsker Centre, a free-speech think tank, to speak at the Durham Union Society about his experiences. He argues that “we’ve lost the culture of robust debate,” observing that the expression “well, it’s a free country” has fallen out of fashion. The government cannot solve the problem but it should “use the bully pulpit” to defend those persecuted for exercising their fundamental freedoms, which are invaluable to “testing which arguments are good and which arguments aren’t.”

Naturally, his former boss Boris Johnson comes up in our conversation. Frost assesses him as a “great man brought down by flaws”, but presents a different Boris Johnson to the general public perception.

He is “very intellectually thoughtful in a way that doesn’t come across in public,” and Frost felt, interestingly, that “he does have firm convictions, not in every area as we discovered, but in many of the areas that matter.” However, “he never was willing to quite invest enough in the organisation around him to bring system and process and clarity of decision-making”, de-railing his administration.

Yet, what Frost rates most highly about Johnson is his charisma and, crucially, his “authenticity”, ascribing his popularity to his “way with words and his refusal to be typecast and pushed around.”

Frost seems unconcerned by the populism inherent in Johnsonian rhetoric. Indeed, although his composed and eloquent demeanour does not suggest it, Frost’s view of the political world has a distinctly populist streak.

I would want to be sure that [in] any ministerial job, I was doing something that needed doing, that the government was committed to it and I was in sympathy with the broader aims of the government

A common theme in our discussion is Frost’s concern about the concept of career politicians, whose experience is limited and whose lives are “bound up with their political success.”

He believes that there are some ministerial “roles where you might always want someone who’s a bit more of an expert”.

He proposes that here should be a way of “getting people in for shorter periods and getting them in the Commons, not as MPs but able to defend their case in Parliament” without ennobling them for life as Frost himself was.

This same principle applies to Frost’s advice for aspiring politicians. Before entering politics, “get to know how the real-world works, get a proper job of some kind and some skills. …Do something that you’re interested in…and feel enthusiastic about.”

The most fulfilling stage of Frost’s remarkable career was the “extraordinary…18 months of doing the talks” with the EU. As his “life’s not invested in politics in the same way” as career politicians, he is very selective about any future commitments, having rejected a post in Liz Truss’s fleeting administration.

“I would want to be sure that [in] any ministerial job, I was doing something that needed doing, that the government was committed to it and I was in sympathy with the broader aims of the government.” Perhaps uncharacteristically for a politician, Lord Frost is not prioritising career advancement. Instead, as seen in recent weeks with the debate surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, he will remain in the public eye, advocating for a vision of Britain in which he firmly believes.

Quickfire:

Boris or Rishi?
Both are good at the right moment

Who will win the next election?
It’s still up for grabs if we do the right things

Best political book?
Just in Time by John Hoskyns, Thatcher’s head of policy.

A life in the civil service or as a politician?
Life of a politician because it’s still better to be in control of what you’re doing and able to say what you think.

Favourite Album?
Hold Your Fire by Rush

Worst PM of recent years?
Theresa May

Oxford or Durham?
I feel it’s an unfair question. I’ve got my loyalties so I have to say Oxford.

Photo Credits: Simon Dawson, No 10 Downing Street, via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.