The alarming signs that Brexit Britain will be ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ – Martyn McLaughlin
Hello, good evening, and welcome to David Frost. No, not the late broadcaster who helped usher in a new era of British satire.
Instead, it is the other David Frost, the man who, without a hint of irony, styled himself as Boris Johnson’s ‘Sherpa’ in Europe, and who has now been tasked with arguably the most important job in government.
Mr Frost has long walked in the shadow cast by his famous namesake, known only to Foreign and Commonwealth Office wonks. But in the coming weeks and months, he will step into the limelight. Whether it is for the right reasons remains to be seen.
As the man tasked with spearheading Britain’s trade negotiations with Europe on Mr Johnson’s behalf, Mr Frost’s moment of truth will arrive on Friday evening, when the Department for Exiting the European Union is shut down.
In its place comes Taskforce Europe, which could easily be mistaken as the title of a straight-to-VHS Lee Marvin film, or a Spinal Tap tour of Scandinavian puppet theatres.
In actual fact, it is a typically Johnsonian moniker for a 40-strong crack team given the unenviable task of playing hardball with Brussels and turning the Prime Minister’s used Jaguar dealer bluster into something tangible.
Back of a beermat
Its members will be drawn from across Whitehall, but the nature of its creation – one which apparently sidelines Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, and asserts supremacy over the Department for International Trade and the Foreign Office – offers a clear vision of how Mr Johnson wants things to be done: behind closed doors, with as little oversight as possible.
The House of Lords EU Select Committee is among is a growing group of critics who warn of insufficient parliamentary scrutiny of how the trade negotiations will be carried out. It has tried – and so far failed – to haul Stephen Barclay, the outgoing Brexit Secretary, before peers for a grilling.
Mr Johnson has said little about the UK Government’s plans for the negotiations, possibly because they are still being scribbled down on the back of a Strangers’ Bar beermat.
Given the very real prospect that hubris and a newfound parliamentary majority have somehow tricked him into believing the next leg of the Brexit marathon will be a downhill daunder, others with considerably more experience in European politics have warned him that will not be the case.
TVs don’t pay tax
On a visit to Britain earlier this month, Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, stressed that whatever the future relationship between Britain and the EU, it “cannot and will not be as close before”.
She cautioned: “With every choice comes a consequence. With every decision comes a trade off … The more divergence there is, the more distant the relationship has to be.”
As the equivalent of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, it will be up to Mr Frost to fight the UK’s corner, and ultimately, provide the outline for the future shape of our economy.
If his diverse career – spent drifting in and out of the Foreign Office – throws up ambiguity over his beliefs in what government should stand for, a speech he gave last year while working as chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce sheds some light.
In an address which struck a chord with Mr Johnson’s values, the 54-year-old railed against business rates in the capital, and employed a curious analogy to support his call for “low, simple, and predictable” taxes.
“Only people can pay taxes,” he said. “If you tax businesses you are taxing their workers, their owners, or their customers. If you doubt that, think about the TV licence. That is a tax on televisions – but it would be absurd to think it is televisions that pay it.”
Which is true, although not as absurd as the notion that there is anyone in Britain over the age of five who believes that is how the TV licence works.
A new era of British satire
It also offers a hint that all the Singapore-on-Thames nonsense – shorthand for a low-tax, low-regulation Britain – is a sincerely held vision, pitched squarely at US businesses.
However, it is one which will anger Barnier and his team, given the threat it poses to the EU’s economic model. It is not Mr Frost’s job to use the ongoing trade talks with the US as leverage in his discussions, but it would be naive to think he can ignore them.
Then there is the timing issue. Mr Johnson is still peddling the hoary myth that a trade deal will be struck, and implemented, in 11 months.
This is an implausible wish. Indeed, in 2016, none other than Mr Frost, then chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, advocated taking up temporary membership of the European Economic Area for five years to “reflect” on the situation and, if necessary, negotiate a free trade agreement at a later date.
Given it would trample all over Britain’s red lines on freedom of movement, it seems unlikely Mr Frost will revisit the proposal any time soon.
So what is the only realistic way of meeting the Prime Minister’s arbitrary deadline? The answer is to commit a monumental act of national self-harm by ratifying a pared-back deal with no regulatory alignment on goods and no thought given to services.
Mr Frost, like his famous namesake, may be about to open the way for yet another new era of British satire, only this time, it will be unintentional.