The significance of the appointment of Lord Frost as a cabinet minister for Brexit

18th February 2021

Compare and contrast two government statements.

The first – which was released to the media though not (it seems) published on the government website – is from just before Christmas 2019.

The statement read:

“The Department for Exiting the European Union will be wound up once the UK leaves the EU on the 31 January.

“DExEU staff have been spoken to today. We are very grateful for all their work and we will help everyone to find new roles.”

The notion was that, now Brexit had been ‘delivered’ there was no need for a cabinet-level minister to be dedicated to Brexit.

But Brexit had not been delivered.

Brexit had hardly begun.

For as this blog as previously averred – and as I set out in this Financial Times video – Brexit will be a negotiation without end. 

This is because in part of the enormity of the issues that still need to be settled – but it also because of the deliberate structure of the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement.

Both of the Brexit agreements create institutions and frameworks for ongoing negotiations, and negotiations, and negotiations.

That the ‘delivery’ of Brexit will be an ongoing matter for substantial and intense engagement with the European Union is a feature of the withdrawal arrangements, not a bug.

The content and form of the exit agreements are not about once-and-for-all and one-bound-and-we-are-free.


And so we come to the second government announcement, from yesterday.

Regardless of the personalities involved – Frost is, in effect, taking over from Michael Gove as the cabinet minister responsible for Brexit, and Gove is a politician many have very strong opinions about – this is a sensible and welcome appointment for four reasons.

First, it shows the government has realised that the task and tasks ahead for Brexit are such that it needs a dedicated minister at cabinet level (even if not, strictly speaking, a secretary of state).

Indeed, the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is likely to be a far more visible and prominent feature of public policy after Brexit than before.

And the cabinet office – and thereby Gove – has many other responsibilities. 

Second, it indicates that the government has realised the folly of creating a special pop-up department for the purpose of dealing with Brexit and is instead working with the grain of the planks of Whitehall than against them.

The cabinet office has many faults, but it at least has the departmental weight, and the expertise and (now) institutional memory on Brexit, that an entirely new department would lack.

Third, as Frost was the United Kingdom’s negotiator of the trade and cooperation agreement, there is a benefit for him also being in place for the negotiations that are to take place within the framework of the agreement.

The many delicate compromises of the agreement, and the agreed processes established to address hundreds (if not thousands) of technical issues (as well as various big ones) will not be – or should not be – news to him.

And fourth, the appointment regularises the position of Frost in the government – making him a formal minister so as to end his limbo state as a politicised adviser and ‘sherpa’.

As such he will be responsible to parliament directly.


Not all government decisions – even with Brexit – are calamitous.

Sometimes the government of the United Kingdom can surprise you and do something (eventually) that makes sense.

Of course: there should have been in place a dedicated cabinet minister for Brexit all along – and, if so, various problems over the last year may not have the effects that they did.

But the primary significance of the appointment is that it implies an official acknowledgement that the real work of Brexit is still to come.

If so, perhaps Brexit reality is finally seeping in.


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30 thoughts on “The significance of the appointment of Lord Frost as a cabinet minister for Brexit”

  1. You may well be correct that there ought to be a minister for ongoing discussions with the EU. We are where we are.

    However, I would suggest that picking Frost is unlikely to be the correct choice, based on his track record. As I said, we are where we are, and he is largely an architect of this problem.

    Interestingly, in today’s FT I read that Ian Duncan-Smith has decided that we shouldn’t try to change our compliance with “EU red-tape” because businesses don’t want to.

    This has all been for nothing.

    1. Quite – the man who is one of the architects of Johnson’s bad deal. Why does anyone think he will do better with ongoing negotiations?

    2. My thoughts exactly. The “deal” is the choice and creation of Frost, Johnson, Cummings and Gove – if it isn’t what they “want” then God help us all. Frost has shown himself to be petulent and undiplomatic, suggesting that he is a poor choice for the office, despite the points David makes for a continuity appointment.

  2. It is quite amazing how a government now puts an unelected bureaucrat into a ministerial position to oversee the future effects of a campaign that, among other things, railed against unelected bureaucrats. Surely this will be a rather obvious angle of attack against both the government and Frost himself.

  3. I disagree that he is the right person for the job though I understand the rationale for saying this.

    If a company is in trouble and needs ‘turning around’…you send in a hatchet man who does the nasty work. You don’t keep that person on after the event because he/she has too much baggage.

    Countries are not companies and politicians are used to working with people they have previously fallen out with (Gove / Johnson). But Frost did a job and is now despised by many in the UK and the EU. He’s also not trusted in the EU (I understand from people who claim to know).

    If we are to move forward and establish a constructive relationship we need someone else.

    Having said all this the above applies to Johnson as well. The whole lot should go. They are despised by too many to be able to create the right atmosphere for the future. I realise he might still win an election but he is hardly a unifying force.

    Of course none of this will ever happen and we will survive (though arguably in a diminished manner).

    1. I may be too cynical, but I think the point is for Frost to absorb a bit more of the odium of the consequences of Brexit, and any further Swiss-style compromises and surrenders that will be needed over the coming year, before he is definitively sacked.

      He’s an ideal scapegoat, lacking any kind of constituency, literal or otherwise, who would defend him. Gove, for example, would be a perfect scapegoat in most other ways, but has too many friends in the media.

  4. Of course it is preferable that he be answerable to parliament vs. politicised advisor.

    My gut feeling is that it would be further preferable as a rule to have a minister who has to answer directly to the Commons. I grant though that on matters Brexit he may have a tougher time in the Lords.

    Whether it would be better in principle not to have an “unelected bureaucrat” in the role is a different question, but one of particular salience in the context of Brexit.

    1. There is nothing wrong with “unelected bureaucrats” . Would you hire a Health minister for an operation or rather an unelected surgeon? With all the commentary about Frost as a person (and how many know him well, personally) we should not forget that his was the job to be unpleasant in ways his master could not, personally. Given that he is a diplomat and familiar with the ways of the EU but committed to his task: arranging a British exit on terms his political masters could accept, there is very little in his recent performance that disqualifies him for this job. We simply do not know how he will show himself as a minister, where personal expression is much more possible. Of course he could be set up as a scapegoat and that is a role diplomats will play too, so why not Frost. However, it is inconceivable that the current government is so incompetent that it will not want to limit some of the damage they have exposed themselves to by sticking to the populist way of Brexit even after that tribe’s main sponsor has left the stage. And Frost has the technical skills to negotiate changes that will soften the whole thing a bit. A hostile approach to Europe will have to wait for quite a while. And given that the EU side is staffed with professionals like Frost, past bruises will not count. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. This task must be performed; is there a better candidate?

      1. There is nothing wrong with “unelected bureaucrats”

        We are well aware of that.

        But it has been a rallying cry in support of Brexit – “no more being dictated to by unelected bureaucrats in the EU…” – since Day One.

      2. “However, it is inconceivable that the current government is so incompetent that it will not want to limit some of the damage they have exposed themselves to by sticking to the populist way of Brexit even after that tribe’s main sponsor has left the stage” Not sure who the tribe’s main sponsor is in this? As to the current government’s competence it may turn out far worse than it has been up to now.

        1. I actually think that this could be difficult given their track record to date showing practically zero competence on anything that doesn’t enrich someone who supports them.

      3. I think the problem is considered to be ‘unelected bureaucrats’ AS POLITICIANS, not simply unelected bureaucrats. Bureaucrats are, by definition, unelected. Politicians are, by definition, elected. The EU was considered by Brexiters to have allowed the bureaucrats to usurp power. Now we actually do that with knobs on.

  5. I would agree with the thrust of this article, had it not been for the identity of the appointee to the role. To me, at least, this looks like a nakedly political appointment, designed by Johnson to isolate him from the consequences of the “deal” which he mandated.

    After over a month of experiencing the real-world consequences of the terms of the agreement, it appears that Gove has had his eyes opened somewhat and is minded to be more conciliatory (witness the perhaps inevitable rowback following the letter to Sefcovic regarding A16). This is being interpreted by Johnson as deviation from the One True Brexit, and is therefore a threat.

    Coupled with Gove having introduced a couple of appointees into no. 10 recently, Johnson is in my view trying to clip Gove’s wings, and has parachuted in the hard-line Frost to “manage” the relationship (translation; insist that the existing deal is sacrosanct and act accordingly, however detrimental to our trading relationship with the EU).

    The collateral damage from these playground games is, sadly, likely to be widespread and long-lasting. I would like to think that there has been an outbreak of grown-up thinking in Downing Street, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

  6. Hmmm. Whatever the merits of the principle, I for one, question whether Frost’s apparent pugnacity, obstinacy and seeming lack of flexibility/commonsense make him best equipped to handle this complex role; unless, of course, the government wishes us to be permanently “at war” with the EU; surely not??! Plus, he’s an unelected bureaucrat. I thought it was one of the aims of Brexit to free us from those?

  7. Also, by the way, Gove isn’t stupid. He realises that the Brexit “backlash” will only grow and grow – for all the reasons we are so frustratingly aware of. And he doesn’t want to be up there on the parapet when things start to stink…

  8. Frost is an excellent choice for all the reasons you mention plus the fact that the EU trade officials know him quite well and will have more confidence in dealing with him in this capacity, assuming some or most of the executive domestic resposibilities will be his (and why not?). Confidence was and is lacking and that is the main reason for the current situation. There is only so much that even the most competent politicians and diplomats can do in the face of a poisoned public opinion where the politics of resentment dominate rationality, or as a minimum, common sense. A rules bound counterparty like the EU will simply default to maximum risk aversion and with their bargaining power that results in unwieldy, highly bureaucratic solutions. Let’s hope the media leave him alone for a while. Just imagine this task entrusted to Ms Truss..

    1. Frost is an excellent choice for all the reasons you mention

      He really isn’t, for all the reasons everyone else mentions: he has been parachuted in to act as Johnson’s bulldog, in order to continue to defend an indefensible of his own making; his intransigence and aggressive anti-EU positioning do not a good politician make in circumstances where we need to be making a bad job better.

      We need a diplomat, not a hitman. And we certainly don’t need the architect of the current car-crash to be put in the position of being able to defend the mess he is responsible for.

      plus the fact that the EU trade officials know him quite well and will have more confidence in dealing with him

      All the more reason to assume that his appointment will not be welcomed by the EU: they’ll be well aware of his dogmatism, inflexibility and disingenuousness.

  9. Good to be able to disagree with you again Mr Green.

    The Prime Minister hurries from one end of the Kingdom from one meaningless photo-opportunity to another. No doubt the workers are only too glad to see the back of him, but it is the opposite of leadership.

    Frost appears to have bludgeoned his way to a deal that met his master’s requirements, in his master’s image. Frost doesn’t appear at all to be the person to clear up this mess. Very much from a distant distance there appeared to be no meeting of minds between Frost and his EU counterparts. I suspect this is sign that the Prime Minister will continue his belligerent, chest-beating, antagonistic, megaphone-tabloid approach to the EU (in truth that is all he knows how to do) and that Frost and Johnson will put any and all Brexit problems down to EU intransigence, and not their incompetence and pig-headedness. Couldn’t be further from the truth, but then the Prime Minister could not be further from the truth.
    Meanwhile Gove slithers further into the dark corner to watch and wait.

  10. Your points are all good ones – and I see the merits of the appointment. But on the other side of the ledger, Frost is ideologically anti-EU, and will naturally seek to defend the bad Brexit that he negotiated – defined by the restoration of theoretical ‘sovereignty’ rather than by economic interest; by the maximisation of British influence; or by the urgent need to mend fences with our closest neighbours.

    I had hoped that, with Brexit “done”, and the media focus elsewhere, the Govt might quietly make non-divergence commitments (eg on SPS) in order to reduce frictions in GB-NI trade, and to lessen the need for cumbersome EU oversight machinery. Equally, they might work within the Partnership Council created by the TCA to do a sensible deal on the free movement of artists and musicians, for example.

    With Frost at the helm as Minister of Brexit Clean-up, it is harder to imagine things moving unobtrusively in that direction (as it would be seen as ‘rowing back’, all but admitting the folly of the positions taken over the last few years).

  11. This is all well and good, but fails to go on to make the point that the problem is going to be Frost himself.

    Unless. (Note the stylistic plagiarism.)

    He changes his spots.

    From everything I have read in a multitude of authoritative journals & blogs, Frost fashioned Brexit very much in the image of his own hardline views. In fact Brexit may have ended up being even harder than Johnson wanted because of Frost.

    How optimistic can we be that such a fanatic will move seriously & fast to reverse seriously mad – and catastrophic – situations such (to pluck two lunacies from hundreds or thousands) as the block on all shellfish sales to the EU and the future inability of people in the performing arts to work without hindrance throughout the EU?

    For Frost it is more important not to have equivalence on food sanitation rules than it is to save food industries, even though those industries are perfectly happy to conform to EU standards.

    Just as he is prepared to sacrifice our creative industries purely to make sure there is no smidgeon of chance of giving the impression of free movement of people.

    Frost is a menace and I cannot agree that he is in any way suited to lead this exercise (although he might be a useful adviser).

  12. There may be another (political) dimension to the appointment of Lord Frost.

    Typically the Foreign (and now many other things) office would be the primary conduit to EU members, and via the ambassador, to the EU itself.

    Notwithstanding Dominic Raab’s leadership, it has long been believed that the Foreign Office is more Europhile is desired by the prevailing Europhobe sentiment in No10, the Cabinet and a Westminster majority.
    To remove responsibility for EU relations from the Foreign Office probably reduces the possibility of ‘undesirable’ concessions.

    One might view this in the same vein as denying legitimacy to an EU ambassador to London. This has the unfortunate consequence of reducing the influence of Lyndsay Croisdale-Appleby, the former ambassador to Columbia, who is now the Foreign Office’s Head of Mission to the EU. Though taking up office on 21 January, Mr Croisdale-Appleby has yet to present his credentials to the EU.
    Again, an outcome that ‘draws the teeth’ of the Foreign Office and suits the Europhobes.

  13. There are pros and cons to the appointment of Frost. He will be responsible for attending to the various messes he has created. He cannot feign ignorance of what he himself negotiated. He will be obliged to apply the terms of the NI protocol. It means Gove has been moved out after his hysterical and cynical attempts to undermine the NI Protocol. On the other hand is is the very personification of an unelected bureaucrat at the centre of power. He is also antagonistic to EU in every fibre of his being so thus unlikely to catch more flies with honey than his vinegar. The petty and vindictive dispute about the status of the EU ambassador will be prolonged. It also demonstrates how nugatory the benefits of Brexit are and that the UK polity will be burdened with the cost, effort and needless attrition of an everlasting negotiation, one against twenty-seven.

  14. There is a respectable view that Lord Frost’s appointment is not to be welcomed quite this enthusiastically.

    Following his appointment, the Cabinet Office will be represented at cabinet by 5 full cabinet ministers, and a 6th non-Cabinet minister, the Leader of the House, regularly attending. Given, nominally, the primary function of the Cabinet Office is to provide a secretariat for Cabinet and to act, in effect, as a department for the civil service that is an extraordinarily outsized representation.

    Further, vesting the Cabinet Office with responsibility for Brexit, as a portmanteau term for the implementation of the EU Withdrawal Agreement (the “WA”), the implementation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (the “TCA”), and the UK’s relationship with the EU generally, required the hollowing out of responsibility from, more obvious, line departments.

    For instance, it required having a fully staffed Department for International Trade bizarrely having no responsibility for UK-EU Trade. Likewise, it required downgrading the Minister for Europe portfolio in the FCDO to the less than inspiringly named Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for European Neighbourhood and the Americas.

    It is more than arguable that the ongoing implementation, as opposed to initial negotiation, of the WA and the TCA would more naturally fit with the line departments who, over the past 40 years, built the institutional memory in these areas: e.g. the Departments of Transport, DEFRA, and on VAT and Customs, HMRC. Furthermore, it would be more natural to expect responsibility for the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to sit with the Northern Ireland Office.

    Do cross-government, or whole of the government issues need to be co-ordinated? Certainly. Traditionally, that would be by a cabinet sub-committee for which the Cabinet Office (with appropriate secondees from other departments) could provide the secretariat.

    That is not what the appointment of Lord Frost does. It vests the entirety of Brexit in one cabinet minister and, in so doing, shifts the Cabinet Office’s role from co-ordination to delivery. As such, it is an unwelcome further centralisation of the execution of government policy away from line departments (who have the greatest institutional memory and accreted expertise).

    It also probably shows that the UK Government sees Brexit as primarily about politics not administration and that likely means attempts to renegotiate the deal with concomitanly less focus on actually implementing the deal the UK has.

    1. Excellent points. I would appreciate DAG’s views on this further centralisation and loss of responsibility by line Departments.

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