Boris Johnson’s Brexit Chief Quits in Body Blow to U.K. Leader
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. minister in charge of post-Brexit negotiations has resigned from Boris Johnson’s government, openly undermining the prime minister over both his negotiations with the European Union and his response to a surge in coronavirus cases.
In a strongly-worded resignation letter, David Frost said he was unhappy with Conservative Party policy. He didn’t like the current Brexit thinking and opposed anything that could look like another lockdown.
“We also need to learn to live with Covid and I know that is your instinct too,” Frost wrote to Johnson. “I hope we can get back on track soon and not be tempted by the kind of coercive measures we have seen elsewhere.”
It’s clear he and Johnson were at odds. Frost explained that he offered to quit a week ago and that the pair agreed he’d move on in January, but the Daily Mail’s report of his impending departure prompted him to quit the government immediately.
It’s bad timing for the embattled prime minister.
The exit of a pivotal figure in his inner sphere comes on the heels of a series of scandals and political blows that have eroded Johnson’s authority and begged questions of how long he can hold to power. The Tories are at war with themselves over how to combat the rapid spread of the omicron variant. A growing libertarian faction is chafing over restrictions.
But U.K. infections are spiking and the government’s chief scientific advisers warning that cases in England could be running in the hundreds of thousands a day. Speculation is rife that the Cabinet, of which Frost was a member, is on the cusp of acting on further measures. The Netherlands announced Saturday it was going back into a lockdown -- effective Sunday.
The sudden resignation adds to the sense of crisis around Johnson, who swept to power on a promise to get “Brexit done” and went on to win a landslide election in 2019. Just over two months ago, he was delighting Tories at the party conference and comfortably ahead in polls.
One Conservative member of Parliament, Andrew Bridgen, described Frost leaving as a “watershed moment” in an interview with Times Radio.
Indeed a series of unforced errors, a steady slow-drip of headlines exposing double standards and conflicts of interest among Conservatives have all but evaporated any goodwill Johnson once enjoyed.
Only on Friday, the civil servant charged with investigating allegations that government officials held lockdown-busting parties last year had to quit because he himself had hosted a similar gathering.
The display of hypocrisy within Tory ranks is particularly damaging as anxious Britons wonder if Christmas celebrations with families are in jeopardy. Johnson’s track record on Covid policy shows he’s reluctant to impose measures only but eventually bows to pressure and the medical evidence.
There are also political considerations. Both voters and his own party have fired a warning shot at his shambolic handling of the pandemic.
In the same week Johnson suffered a humiliating defeat in a special election in a historically safe Tory seat and the biggest Conservative rebellion of his tenure when 100 MPs opposed his strategy for clamping down on the new variant.
Frost’s written comments suggest that parliament vote was the last straw for a politician held dear by rank-and-file Tories for his no-nonsense negotiating on Brexit and his espousal of personal freedom and responsibility.
He is, according to the most recent Conhome poll, the second-most popular Cabinet minister among Tory grassroots. That makes him a potential threat to Johnson down the line.
“I hope we will move as fast as possible to where we need to get to: a lightly regulated, low tax, entrepreneurial economy,” Frost wrote.
Frost was the person who led the negotiations over Brexit, Johnson’s signature move as leader, and the two men had seen eye to eye in their efforts to play hardball with Brussels.
Frost has been threatening to suspend some U.K. obligations under the Brexit agreement and persuaded EU negotiators to offer a series of concessions relating to the status of Northern Ireland.
Still, the U.K. government has dialed back its threats in recent weeks as Johnson felt the political heat. On Friday, Frost issued what in hindsight looks like an oddly conciliatory statement, saying he was happy to let talks with the EU run into 2022.
On a late Saturday evening, after leading the Brexit process for two-and-a-half years, Frost made his feelings public. It was time to hand over to others.
“Brexit is now secure,” he wrote. “The challenge for the government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us.”
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