You win some, you lose some. We’re still nowhere near finding out if the government has a coherent plan for tackling social care – only late on Monday the prime minister cancelled a meeting with Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock due to take place on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue. So we can probably assume not. But we are a little better informed as to why the negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol have started to unravel badly. And that’s because every time he speaks, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator, David Frost, doesn’t seem to be quite as bright as he would like us all to believe.
Tuesday’s appearance before the foreign affairs select committee was a case in point. Having established his credentials as being rather more important than a minister for Europe, Lord Frost then did his best to prove why he wasn’t really up to the job. He got off to a bad start by saying that the decision not to fully accredit the EU ambassador to the UK had been “over-interpreted” and that petty point scoring had been the last thing on the government’s mind. For some reason, the EU had seen it differently and taken offence.
But it was when Labour’s Graham Stringer asked about the Northern Ireland protocol that Frost began to unravel. It had been obvious from the start the UK had only been pretending to apply EU law in Northern Ireland as a matter of political convenience and what the EU had done was to deliberately misinterpret this as if we were signing an international treaty in good faith. We had imagined that the EU would look on the protocol as mere window dressing and would take a pragmatic view of us ignoring the rules.
It should have been obvious we had not intention of sticking to the letter of the law, Frost continued. Not least because Boris Johnson was the UK prime minister and if there was one thing on which you could rely with Boris was that he never kept his promises and would seek to bend the regulations. So Frost and his negotiating team had been totally taken aback to discover that the EU were treating Johnson as a man of his word and were expecting the UK to keep to the terms of the protocol. It was all a bit bumpy right now, Frost conceded, but no one could possibly have imagined that events would pan out as they had.
The committee chair, Tom Tugendhat, no fan of either Boris or Brexit, took the increasingly unremarkable Frost up on this. This wasn’t quite true, he said, before going on to list just some of the many millions of people who had predicted the precise turn of events. There was the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former head of staff, for a start. After all, the whole reason the Maybot had never negotiated a similar Brexit deal to the protocol was precisely because she could see that it would undermine the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
“I didn’t mean that no one had predicted this,” Frost said, back-pedalling rather. What he had meant was that he and Boris had failed to predict it. They had needed a deal to get Brexit over the line and the Northern Ireland protocol had looked the best bet as something that both sides could comfortably ignore. He could only repeat how astonished he was that the EU had been so intransigent in their refusal to finesse the rules to the UK’s advantage.
By now it was dawning on the committee that they might have got more sense out of Frosty the Snowman. What part of his nearly 30 years working in the Foreign Office had led him to believe the EU was a nimble, fast-moving organisation that would improvise its international treaties with third party countries? And how could he have imagined it would be easy to hoodwink a leviathan that had been founded on a “take it or leave it” rule of law?
Frost now began to ad-lib, seemingly oblivious to the hopeless impression he was making. He doubled down on Brexiters having been given no warning over the complexities of Northern Ireland before suggesting that the UK had done the EU a favour by giving them a new challenge to deal with. One the 27 countries had always secretly longed for. He also maintained that life would be a great deal easier if the EU stopped making threats. He seemed to have forgotten the UK has been making threats against the EU for decades now.
Tory Andrew Rossindell – he appeared horizontal either because his Zoom camera was malfunctioning or he had given up the will to live – summed things up by observing there was no way the Northern Ireland protocol could be considered a “cracking” deal as Dominic Raab had once said. Frost was left inchoate, babbling “yeah but, no but, yeah but, no”. Something would have to give. And given the UK was constitutionally unable to keep its word it was up to the EU to take pity on us and be pragmatic. If only by granting us a sausage extension. The rest could look after itself. Or not.