“Beware, Remainers are regrouping” is the heavily-puffed headline on David Frost’s latest opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph. The Remain campaign, he warns the paper’s pro-Brexit readership, is getting the old band together and “pushing for Britain to rejoin the EU”.
It’s quite the claim – and one which the Telegraph’s editors take seriously enough to run across the top of today’s front page. So what is Frost’s evidence of this “push”? That a #brexitshambles hashtag has been appearing on Twitter. That Andrew Adonis, sometime of this parish, has said it is “time to rethink”. That Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury, has said “the effect on growth from Brexit is tangible”. And that Lord Barwell, the former Downing Street chief of staff, is “even trying to rehabilitate his and Theresa May’s terrible backstop deal from 2019”.
As a concerted campaign it’s a rather disparate group and, indeed, Frost himself says that “of course there is little chance of a serious ‘rejoin’ campaign developing in the short term”, thereby undermining the entire basis of his article as early as the fifth paragraph. So what is he up to?
Frost has had a sniff for the limelight ever since Boris Johnson thought the former head of the Scotch Whisky Association was the man with the requisite experience to lead the complicated negotiation on the UK’s exit from the European Union. And, although he remains a pretty outside candidate to be the next leader of the Conservative Party (no major bookmaker is offering odds, although Unibet will give you 200/1 on Chris Grayling), there are signs that something may be stirring.
Frost will be aware that during his short time in Cabinet he was frequently near the top of ConservativeHome’s polling on ministers among members, beaten usually only by Liz Truss. And since quitting the Cabinet over Covid restrictions (restrictions which were, at the time, coming to an end, but that’s by the by) he seems to have spent most of his time courting useful headlines in friendly publication. “Be a true Tory Boris or you’re out: Former Cabinet Minister Lord Frost says PM is the ‘right leader but has the wrong people and policies’ after his shock resignation and slams ‘woke warriors stifling British democracy’,” the Daily Mail reportedly breathlessly in January.
His Telegraph article today runs like a leadership manifesto, and a two-pronged one at that. First, that Brexit has been a success and Labour want to reverse it (which, a few culture war bones aside, is likely to be the crux of the next Conservative election manifesto regardless of who leads it). And simultaneously second, like Marxists say of their own creed, if it hasn’t been a success, well, that’s only because it hasn’t been attempted properly yet.
So in Frostworld, Brexit opponents’ “picture of Britain is not the one the rest of us see: living with Covid successfully, leading on Ukraine, coming out of the economic downturn faster than Germany, and with PMI business confidence levels higher than the eurozone or the US”.
Any evidence of negative effects of Brexit can be dismissed. The lorries waiting up to eight hours at Calais to clear customs, problems with new IT systems governing the movement of goods across the border, acute problems for certain specialist sectors? “In reality, it is almost impossible to draw any firm conclusions from the trade figures amid the noise of recovery from the pandemic, trade re-routing, and methodological change”. Indeed, the delays at Dover which have been causing tailbacks in Kent since the start of the year, have been “caused, in fact, by the withdrawal of P&O ships”.
The Office for Budget Responsibility and Growth’s report last month that reported exports and imports were respectively still 13 and 12 percent below their 2019 averages and predicted that the loss of trade would lead to productivity being 4 percent lower after a 15-year period? “This is of course not a fact but a prediction, though the distinction seems lost on many,” says Frost with a wave of his wrist.
And anyway, if it doesn’t work, maybe it just wasn’t done properly. Maybe Britain needs a new leader, perhaps a man who gnomically answered “never say never” when GB News host Mark Steyn quizzed him about his prime ministerial ambitions?
That only leaves one issue: “doing a Tony Benn”, renouncing his peerage, finding a safe Conservative seat and becoming an MP. Because surely a man who writes today that leaving the EU made Britain “a full democracy once again” would not wish to be the first prime minister from the upper house since the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury in 1902?