LONDON — David Frost has resigned from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government at a key moment in talks with Brussels.
In a letter to Johnson, released by No. 10 Downing Street on Saturday night, Frost, who was the U.K. minister in charge of Brexit negotiations, said he was stepping down with immediate effect to “hand over the baton to others to manage our future relationship with the EU.”
He had been planning to step down in January, but brought it forward after news of his resignation was published by the Mail on Sunday on Saturday evening.
Frost said that while Brexit was “now secure,” he was concerned about the “current direction of travel” when it came to delivering on the opportunities of Britain’s departure from the European Union.
“I hope we will move as fast as possible to where we need to get to: a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change. Three hundred years of history show that countries which take that route grow and prosper, and I am confident we will too,” he said.
The news comes after a terrible week for Johnson. After the U.K. prime minister suffered a huge House of Commons rebellion by his own MPs Wednesday over his COVID-19 Brexit policy, voters roundly overturned a massive Conservative majority Thursday in a by-election in North Shropshire that was triggered by his mishandling of a lobbying scandal.
Yesterday, Johnson’s most senior civil servant Simon Case was forced to stand aside from an investigation into rule-breaking parties in No. 10 Downing Street after it emerged he had attended an impromptu Christmas drinks gathering in his government office last year in an apparent breach of COVID rules.
Frost, a Johnson loyalist who served as his special adviser when he was foreign secretary, was ennobled by the prime minister so that he could join the government and lead negotiations with Brussels over the implementation of the Brexit deal. He later became a minister for the Cabinet Office in March.
He was previously an adviser to Johnson on Brexit and led negotiations on the trade deal with Brussels, which was announced on Christmas Eve last year.
This year, Frost has led the U.K. negotiating team during talks about post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland but has failed to iron out any of the outstanding issues.
Frost had repeatedly warned the U.K. is prepared to collapse the talks and trigger Article 16, which allows either side to adopt unilateral measures to protect itself if the Brexit agreement has led to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak intervened to urge Article 16 should not be triggered before Christmas, according to someone with knowledge of the negotiations.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and Frost spoke Friday for the last time this year about the Northern Ireland protocol.
Frost said in a statement following the meeting that the U.K. wanted to strike an “interim agreement” with the Commission early in the new year and it was willing to leave out sticky issues such as divergence of regulations, including for manufactured goods, for later — an apparent softening of the U.K. stance.
The Mail quotes a senior government source who says Frost’s departure “had been prompted by the introduction of ‘Plan B’ Covid measures, including vaccine passports,” which have been controversial among many Tories.
Almost 100 Conservative MPs rebelled in a House of Commons vote last week over the U.K. prime minister’s COVID-19 policy.
In his letter, Frost said the U.K. must “learn to live with Covid,” warning the prime minister not to be “tempted by the kind of coercive measures we have seen elsewhere.”
The paper also said Frost was unhappy about tax rises and Johnson’s environmental policies.
Frost is popular with Conservative grassroots members. A ranking by the Conservative Home website put him in second place behind Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in net satisfaction ratings.
The U.K. government announced last week it was delaying post-Brexit checks due January 1 on goods entering Great Britain from the island of Ireland.
His departure is likely to be welcomed in European capitals.
In Dublin, a government official said Frost’s departure would be viewed with relief and could make an agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol possible early in the new year.
“That effort desperately needs a dose of realism from the British government to reach an endpoint, and too often he [Frost] preferred to manufacture problems than engage,” said the Irish official, who spoke on condition they were not identified.
“It’s not possible to reach agreement when one side just complains, raises new and impossible demands like the [European Court of Justice] and offers nothing constructive in response to what have been comprehensive and reasonable proposals from Brussels. His constant threats to trigger Article 16 were always counterproductive and, by the end, verged on the absurd. Hopefully, his successor will drop that act.”
Julian Smith, who was Northern Ireland secretary in former U.K. prime minister Theresa May’s government tweeted: “Dogma has run its course.” He said that in the final negotiations with the EU the interests of Northern Ireland “across community now has to be the priority.”
Who Johnson puts in Frost’s place could have huge political implications. Frost was largely trusted by Brexiteer MPs and had a good relationship with unionists in Northern Ireland.
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Jeffrey Donaldson, who has threatened to collapse Northern Ireland’s political institutions over his party’s unhappiness with the protocol, said in a statement Frost had been “frustrated on a number of fronts.” Frost’s departure raised “more serious questions for the Prime Minister and his approach to the NI Protocol,” he added. “The prime minister must now urgently decide which is more important — the protocol or the stability of the political institutions,” he warned.
Shawn Pogatchnik and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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