Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future

14 Jun

If anything stops Lord Frost from carrying on in politics, it will be the “shocking” degree of personal hostility he has encountered, which he describes, unbidden, at the end of this interview:

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.”

He observes that because he became a minister without having first been an MP, he had not become accustomed to some of the rigours of life in the public eye.

Frost resigned as a minister in December last year, in protest at the Government’s “direction of travel”, but is now considering seeking election to the Commons, in order to press Boris Johnson and his team to adopt more Conservative policies, including tax cuts:

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation: ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.'”

In this interview he describes how, while serving as a career diplomat, he became a Eurosceptic, and how later he became a “big admirer” of Dominic Cummings.

He deplores the restrictions on freedom of expression during the lockdowns of recent years, and opposes the target of reaching Net Zero by 2050:

“I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

But he began by discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol. This interview was conducted at teatime yesterday afternoon, before the Government had published its Bill, but Frost explained the principles which should inform policy, and why it was right in the first place to sign the Protocol, and is right now to insist on changes.

ConHome: “You tweeted this morning: ‘Many are asking for my view of today’s NI Protocol Bill…The Govt is right to act but must get the detail right.’

“You say in between those quotes that you need to read and study it. You won’t have been able to do that yet, but what would getting the details wrong look like, and what are the dangers inherent in the Bill?”

Frost: “We know there’s been a back and forth over the past week internally between groups with different views on this subject, and I suppose what might be a risk would be if they found compromises that tried to keep everybody happy, tried to find middle ways that don’t complete the logic of the direction that’s established.

“Are you going to take the [European] Court out completely, or is there going to be some residual role? Is dual regulation done in a simple way, or in a complicated way?”

ConHome: “You mean they mustn’t muddle it in such a way that all the people who think it isn’t being done properly are on their back, and all the people who complain about breaking international law are on their back, all at the same time? They’ve got to make up their mind what they’re doing?”

Frost: “Yeah, I think that’s fair. This is going to cause a lot of alarms and excursions, obviously. If we’re going to go through this we need to make sure we deliver the result that’s worth having at the end of it.”

ConHome: “What do you think of the objection that this is clearly in breach of international law, the Attorney General is there because she’s a Spartan, they’ve dragged in the Treasury devil but he’s not allowed to pronounce on the legality of the proceedings…”

Frost: “So who knows what’s happened internally on all of that. I think the Attorney General, she’s the legal adviser to the Government and what she says goes, and there’s always debate around things, but I think that is decisive.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the summary of the legal position is when it’s published. It sounds as if the Attorney is convinced there’s an international law support for this course of action.”

ConHome: “Is there not a case for publishing the whole legal advice?”

Frost: “Well it’s not normally done. I don’t think it’s necessary as long as you make clear what the Attorney’s view is.”

ConHome: “One view is that the main problem for the Government is that the Bill won’t persuade the DUP to go back into government in Northern Ireland before it is passed.

“If it doesn’t achieve this end, it will simply help create further ill-will for nothing, won’t it?”

Frost: “Every course of action on the Protocol now has some risk that it won’t bring along somebody, that it won’t bring along one group or another, somebody won’t like it.

“In the end you’ve got to act and invite everybody else to react to that action. So I hope the DUP do what’s necessary and begin to come back in to the Executive after this is tabled, if it is what we think.

“But if they don’t it doesn’t make it any less valid that we should be acting as we are.”

ConHome: “Does anyone ever change their mind about the Protocol? Such a high percentage of the debate is just experts, or supposed experts, repeating their previous positions.”

Frost: “It’s such a complicated and delicately balanced document in the first place that it’s capable of accommodating various interpretations.

“I thought it was carefully balanced, I thought it would last longer than it did, I thought the EU would run it in a more sensitive way than they have done.

“So the fact that they haven’t means I’ve changed my view slightly.

“But the text itself says what is says. It was a response to events.

“And those who say ‘I wish we’d not signed this’ or ‘You shouldn’t have signed it’ have got to face up to the reality at the time.

“It’s very easy for commentators to say ‘I wish it hadn’t been like this’. But they have to say what would they have done faced with the choice of signing an improved but still imperfect Protocol, and getting Brexit to happen, or endless prolongation of the constitutional war and possibly Brexit never happening.

“Those were the actual choices, and to pretend there was some other way through is just trying to have it all ways.”

ConHome: “The objection then becomes that having signed it, you’re in no position now to try to drive a coach and horses through the very vehicle that you signed in this Bill.”

Frost: “I mean I wish it didn’t have to be like this, is the simple answer. It wouldn’t have taken much to run it in a more sensitive way. It is of course not being fully implemented even now. It can only work because of the grace periods and so on.

“I wish it had been possible to do it differently but it isn’t.”

ConHome: “At the other end there are people who say, ‘We could deal rationally with Michael Gove. Indeed we reached a settlement with Michael Gove. But we found David Frost to be a complete monster, who stuck obdurately to a UK position and is responsible for some of this trouble.”

Frost: “So I think what’s happened since I left sort of disproves that. There are two answers to that question. One we came in, I came in in 2019-20 after three years in which the UK had not been saying clearly what it wanted and had been making a terrible hash of the negotiations.

“There was a need to be clear and a need to be forceful in what we said if we were going to get anything to happen.

“Second, this year Liz Truss initially started with a completely different approach and there was a month or so when everyone said this brutish, nationalist Frost has disappeared and we’ve now got somebody who can work.

“And where are we? We’re in exactly the same position. How negotiators are to each other is only a minor element in it. The question is what is the national interest involved.

“There hasn’t been any movement on the national interest involved and that’s why we are where we are.”

ConHome: “When did you become a Brexiteer? One looks at your C.V., Foreign Office, Ambassador to Denmark, you had this key strategy role in the Foreign Office. This is not a C.V. that’s automatically associated with support for Brexit.

“So when did it happen? Did you have to keep it quiet?”

Frost: “I regarded myself as a Eurosceptic pretty soon after I went to Brussels in the Nineties. I went to Brussels with quite conventional opinions and they changed through seeing the way it worked, to be honest.

“And this was the Major Government era and all the drama of that. I think I began to think leaving might be necessary, because one forgets now leaving was really quite a far-out opinion until quite late in this process, I began thinking it might be necessary around the time I left the civil service, around then, 2013.

“I think many of us, it was only when the renegotiation failed, indeed was never seriously tried in the first place, that it seemed like OK there’s no real option left other than leave now.

“It was probably known that my opinions were, within the Foreign Office, quite sceptic. There are people like Charles Grant for example who will say that ‘I never realised he was a Eurosceptic, he never seemed to show any sign of it when I met him’.

“Well good, I was supposed to be representing the Government, that was the job. It doesn’t mean one can’t have internal convictions on things.”

ConHome: “When you did the Scotch Whisky Association job [Frost was Chief Executive 2014-16] your line in the referendum was pro-Remain. Presumably that came with the job?”

Frost: “Again, I represented the views of the members on that. Actually, I was on the Council of Open Europe at the time, and Dom Cummings, who I didn’t know, did a bit of a hit job on me in May during the referendum campaign.

“So if you look on Guido round about that time you will find some of my internal emailing leaked to him, which shows that my private opinion was different.

“That was actually quite awkward for me at the time.”

ConHome: “Is Cummings a loss to the Government, or had the position become completely impossible?”

Frost: “I think he is a loss. I’m a big admirer of Dom. I haven’t agreed with him on everything, in particular on aspects of lockdown, Covid policy, we’ve had a different view, but I think his focus and ability to look through the day to day noise, focus on the goal, work out what’s important to it, what isn’t, you know that’s quite a rare skill in government, and it’s even rarer to be given a chance to act on it.

“So I think you need somebody like that, you need people who are able to do that. Otherwise you become overwhelmed by the day-to-day noise.”

ConHome: “Do they have that in the team now?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know the current team as well as I know the predecessor. It’s not obvious from events that they have that at the moment. But if they haven’t, they ought to try to get it.”

ConHome: “Are you enjoying being a columnist? You can say whatever you like, you’re not constrained by collective responsibility. Do you enjoy it?”

Frost: “I do quite. I might get a bit weary of saying, at some point, and want to do doing again. Who knows? But at the moment I’m enjoying it.”

ConHome: “You have become a kind of right-wing poster boy. You’re writing in favour of a small state, lower taxes, you’re sceptical about lockdowns, sceptical about Net Zero, you want less regulation.

“To the members, this is a dream, and you do recognise what’s going on. There’s a lot of conversation about ‘If only they’d do what Lord Frost tells them to do, and if only Lord Frost were there to do it’.”

Frost: “Yeah, I mean it’s been a bit of a surprise to me to be honest. I’ve been a party member, off and on, for some time, obviously you can’t do much more when you’re in government, but you’re allowed to have convictions about things.

“What I say now I just regard as normal conservatism. You know, let’s get the state back down to the size it was when Gordon Brown was in power, that’s good.

“That doesn’t make you in favour of a night watchman state. It just makes you in favour of trying to shrink it when you can.

“I think lockdowns were extremely damaging and liberated some extremely worrying forces and currents of opinion that we need to do our best to put back in their box.”

ConHome: “Which are what?”

Frost: “The authoritarian state. Vaccine passports and wherever that may lead. Some of the constraints on the free expression of opinion that happened from time to time during lockdown.”

ConHome: “Anything in particular?”

Frost: “The most obvious thing is where did all this start, was it a lab leak or not, the ability to debate that. I thought it was also suggestive they took quite some time before they acknowledged the vaccines don’t prevent transmission, they only prevent symptoms.

“There was a kind of month or two where that was obvious but it was not acknowledged in official statements, and then became too obvious not to.

“I think one of the most worrying things was the inability to look objectively at the evidence, weigh it up, come to reasoned conclusions. There was much too much doubling down on ‘we did this so we must stick to doing it, even if the evidence points in a different direction’.”

ConHome: “You said last month, ‘I don’t think the Lords is a particularly brilliant place to do real politics from. I think you need to be in the Commons to do real politics, that’s obvious…if in future the opportunity comes up and the party wants me to do it, obviously I would be ready to stand down from the seat and do proper politics again.’

“Do you want to be in the House of Commons?”

Frost: “It was a new thing to me. I left out of concern about the direction of travel and the plan B. I hadn’t really intended to continue political life in a different way.

“But then there’s been this speculation about would I do it. What you’ve just quoted says what I think. The House of Lords is a great institution and I don’t want to undermine Conservative colleagues who do a good job and are very necessary to getting the business through.

“But the fact is it’s an unelected house. You can’t take controversial positions in it, you can’t easily advocate cases, and in the end you can’t and shouldn’t I think really block and change things in the Lords.

“If you aspire to shape opinion and make things happen I think it’s right that you should be in the Commons. Whether I want and will do that I’ll see.”

ConHome: “To be clear, you’re mulling the possibility.”

Frost: “Yes, I think that’s fair.”

ConHome: “The obvious critique of all this is look, here’s Lord Frost, he was quite a senior minister, which means you’ve got to knuckle down and accept things you don’t like, on Net Zero, Covid, the direction of tax and spend and all that.

“And if Lord Frost didn’t want to do that within the Cabinet, in the Lords, why would he be any good at doing it collectively with colleagues in the Commons?”

Frost: “Well I think it’s a fair question. Obviously there are quite a lot of Tory colleagues in the Commons who have the same opinions as me on quite a lot of things, and that’s not a contradiction for them.

“What we need to do is get the Government onto an agenda that more Conservatives feel they can support.”

ConHome: “Do you think that Rishi Sunak has succumbed to the institutional grip of the Treasury and isn’t bold enough about income tax cuts?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know about him personally, and I’m always a bit cautious – lots of people attributed to me thought processes and beliefs that weren’t in fact the case.

“But obviously I think that the economic situation requires loosening of fiscal policy and tightening of monetary policy, and I think that means personal tax cuts, not rises. If we could reverse out what we’ve done that would be a start.

“I do think the Treasury orthodoxy is very strong, and I wouldn’t like to say he’s been captured by it, I don’t think that’s fair, but I do think the Treasury Finance Ministry view of the world is all about getting in money, it isn’t about structural reform to increase the productive capacity of the economy.

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation, ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.’

“And that should be the direction of travel. I’m not sure how likely that is, mind you.”

ConHome: “On Net Zero, what’s your view? That the target is too severe?”

Frost: “I think the way I would look at it is not to get into ‘Is it the right target?’ or ‘Is global warming scientifically justified?’ or whatever. From the political point of view, my view is that with the technology we’ve got I don’t see how we deliver the target by 2050 unless we are rescued by fusion power or some massive advance in battery power.

“But at the moment those things don’t seem likely. And I don’t see how we are going to decarbonise the grid by 2035. I don’t see how the technologies exist.

“And everybody is ignoring the fact that the intermittency of renewables (a) is a problem in itself (b) imposes huge costs elsewhere on the grid by the way of backup and inefficiency.

“I think we need more focus on security. We need a more realistic focus on the speed of the transition. I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

ConHome: “Lots of our readers will think all that is simple common sense, and will therefore ask, ‘What did other people say in government when you put this view to them?'”

Frost: “One other consequence before I answer the question. Net Zero affects huge parts of the economy, not just in energy prices but in systems, the way it works.

“And if you want serious post-Brexit reform that produces greater efficiency, lower costs, simpler ways of doing things, the existence of the Net Zero target is a big inhibition on that.

“You’re essentially saying large parts of the economy are off-limits for the purposes of reform.

“So that’s the context that I used to have those discussions in. Without going into detail, I think many people would acknowledge that.

“I think people reasonably point out Net Zero was in the manifesto, it was something that was campaigned on, it was one of the pledges, it should be taken seriously.

“I don’t want to speak for others. But many people have a degree of uncertainty and unease about it that is not always dealt with.”

ConHome: “What were your feelings at 9 p.m. last Monday when you heard that 148 Conservative MPs had voted against the Prime Minister?”

Frost: “Well, I was happy the PM had survived, I wasn’t that surprised to be honest the vote against was so high, reading the runes.

“I think the Prime Minister, I’ve said it, I think he’s a remarkable guy, he’s done a lot for this country, he deserves a chance to deliver and to continue with the agenda, so I’m glad he’s survived from that point of view.

“But I do think he’s got to deliver the agenda. That’s the question mark now. And I’ve worked as closely with him as anyone over the last five years, and I feel for him, the agonies of this very, very difficult politics.

“But equally, we’ve got a majority of 80, we must do something with this majority of 80 to keep improving the country.

“Can I say one other thing I meant to say, just about coming into politics?

“Most people become ministers and do controversial things in politics after they’ve been an MP. For me it all came suddenly out of the blue, and having to get used to the public exposure suddenly, without any kind of prep, has been quite shocking in some ways to me.

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.

“I mean it shows the passions that have been unleashed.”

ConHome: “Is it one of these things that you might rationally have anticipated, but you can’t emotionally until it actually happens? The reason you might rationally have anticipated it is you were Boris Johnson’s special adviser, so you’ll have seen the antipathy, hatred and venom that he was the target of. But until it happens to you, you can’t quite believe it’s happening.”

Frost: “Exactly, exactly. And I think if you’ve had time to get used to the idea it’s one thing. All of a sudden to find it there has been shocking.

“I mean I’m not saying I should be protected from hostile comment on social media. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely don’t think that. There are plenty of block and mute tools. I certainly don’t think we need an Online Harms Bill to protect me from comment.

“But the degree of personal hostility, and sometimes as I say face to face, has been striking. If anything stops me carrying on it’s more likely to be that and the knock-on than anything else. Which is a pity, really.”

The post Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future first appeared on Conservative Home.