Lord Frost Interview: "I book restaurants under a different name so it doesn't attract attention"
Lord Frost suggested he could give up his peerage to run as an MP
The former chief Brexit negotiator explains how the new Prime Minister can finally secure the benefits of leaving the European Union – and reveals the personal impact of his meteoric rise through British politics
Six years on from the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and following endless assurances from ministers that they will “Get Brexit Done”, the glacial process of exiting the bloc feels like an obvious starting point for any discussion with Lord Frost.
Meeting in his Westminster office, Frost, who spent his career in the civil service before embarking on frontline politics, could be forgiven for explaining away the torturous Brexit process on the intricacies of international negotiations and policy development. Instead, he is refreshingly honest.
“I don’t think anybody would have anticipated quite how bad it got,” he says. “One of the things that surprised me immediately after the referendum was just how strong the pro-European view was – which had barely been visible in the campaign itself – as a real, ideological, emotional commitment to the European Union from some people. But it came out afterwards.
“Everyone was playing to win the whole game, rather than compromise, and in the end it turned out like it did, but it’s a great pity it became so ideologised, so emotionally charged, when what it is really about is being a member of an international organisation or not.”
Frost’s curiosity at the influence of European identity comes in the face of his own close ties with the continent where he spent much of his former diplomatic career; he even learnt Greek during his time at the British High Commission in Cyprus. Sadly, he jokes, the decades have somewhat dampened his fluency.
But the necessary impartiality required of a senior civil servant masked a burgeoning Euroscepticism that later saw Frost plucked by Boris Johnson from relative obscurity to lead the UK’s negotiations in Brussels in 2019, meaning he was responsible for both revising the ensuing withdrawal agreement and thrashing out the terms of future UK-EU trade arrangements.
By the middle of 2021 he had been elevated to the House of Lords and given a seat around the cabinet table where he was tasked with handling the domestic realities of Brexit and the turmoil it wrought in Northern Ireland.
Known for his bullish negotiating style, Frost says he was responding to what he characterises as an element of “vindictiveness” from some on the EU side, and the necessity to reset the UK’s position in the wake of what he describes as “quite serious” mistakes made during Theresa May’s premiership, especially around Northern Ireland.
I haven’t developed the sort of thick skin that others have... My mum worries about me all the time
He says that approach has helped deliver some of the major planks of the Brexit campaign, even if progress may have been more incremental than many would have hoped. The government has, he insists, “taken back control” of immigration, even if in reality overall numbers have yet to fall. Agriculture and state aid rules have been changed but the promised bonfire of red tape for business has taken only “baby steps”. From his analysis of the progress, there is an underlying sense that delivering the “benefits of Brexit” will be more about the journey than the destination.
According to Frost, that is partly due to government resources being swamped by Covid, Ukraine and the political storm around Boris Johnson. But the Conservative peer also hints at a less-than-united front among senior ministers – something he hopes will change under Liz Truss, whom he supported during the Conservative leadership contest.
“I do think the Treasury was reluctant to see the level of ambition that we would have wanted. Not entirely, because they are doing some stuff on financial services reform for example, but they were very reluctant to push other things as far as we would have wanted, and it just never proved possible to work beyond that with that PM and that chancellor.
“So, I think Liz has drawn the correct conclusion that you need a PM and a chancellor who think the same thing.”
Despite that support for Truss’s approach on Brexit and their agreement over the need for a low-tax, low-regulation economy – he is one of the few Conservatives to publicly defend Kwasi Kwarteng’s controversial so-called “mini-budget” – Frost failed to secure a post in the new Cabinet.
While he remained coy about the chances of re-entering government, Truss’s camp had reportedly floated the idea of him replacing Michael Gove as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster or even taking over as leader of the House of Lords, but talks apparently fell through.
I question whether there is a whiff of hypocrisy about his past and potentially future cabinet service given the frequent denunciation by Brexiteers of the influence of “unelected bureaucrats” in Brussels.
“No, not hypocrisy,” he laughs. “Because that is how our system works. It would be better in many ways if we could devise a system like a lot of the Europeans have, where you can be a minister and present a policy to the elected house. But our system means if you are going to be a minister you’ve got to be in the Lords... I don’t think it is a particularly great system, but it’s the one we’ve got.”
He is critical of the House of Lords as an institution, saying it is not a “very satisfactory place to do politics from” and claiming that Brexit “let the genie out the bottle” by emboldening peers to block government legislation more frequently.
“I actually feel ambivalent about how to use the Lords seat, because I don’t think it’s right having been given it to use it as if I have been elected.
“I don’t think the Lords should be blocking things that the elected House has agreed to. Improving it, yes. But I don’t think it’s right that fundamentally different positions are taken by an unelected House and blocking it.”
Indeed, Frost has flirted with the idea of stepping down from the Lords to stand instead as an MP, something he is still considering, and he reveals he has spent several months speaking with local Conservative associations.
“I’m still making my mind up about it,” he says. “If you are going to be in politics where you actually have a finger on the buttons of power then you should really be elected.
“I don’t think our system works very well for prolonged periods of time when a senior minister is not in the elected house. It’s fundamental fairness.”
The failure to find Frost a role in the new government will come as a disappointment to many Tory members, among whom the former Brexit chief has become an increasingly popular figure since his resignation from Johnson’s government in late 2021.
While Frost claims his decision to quit was primarily due to concerns around the government’s Covid policy, he hints at the impact of discrepancies in the former prime minister’s public boosterism on Brexit and the reality of discussions around the cabinet table.
“I’m not naive about this, and every government has to make compromises,” he says. “The government is keeping the show on the road to a large extent as well as doing everything it wants to do.
“I was definitely arguing internally for a more robust approach to these questions, and getting stymied a bit. Would that have forced me out on its own? Not necessarily, I think I felt we were still pushing and doing the right thing.
“Then there was the Covid Plan B stuff and the vaccine passports, where I just felt that we were descending into the madness again, for no good reason. And somebody has got to say, ‘we can’t put up with this’.”
Frost’s own convictions around the Brexit programme have come under scrutiny, primarily due to warnings he issued during his time as CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association – a role he took up in 2013 after leaving the diplomatic service – over the potential economic harm that would come from leaving the single market.
Like Truss, a former Remainer, Frost was accused of undergoing a Damascene conversion over Brexit, perhaps to help advance his career. But he is firm that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“People look at what I said and extrapolate back and assume I was a politician all my life, whereas I’ve only been a politician, being able to speak properly in public myself, for a couple of years.
“If you go further back as a civil servant, you’ll find me on record saying all kinds of things, including supporting Labour policy, because that is what the job implied. The Scotch Whisky Association policy was to stay in the EU, and my job was to project that. That doesn’t make me a Remainer, that makes me a professional, and obviously I voted Leave.”
He adds: “That is the context, and I don’t want to seem evasive because I could have always resigned and said, ‘I feel so strongly about this’, but I didn’t, and I accept that.
“But as soon as I was in a position to do and say things that took us, in my view, in the right direction, I did.”
Expressing those views has come at a personal cost for Frost, who has found himself on the receiving end of vitriolic abuse, including physical attacks – he has been shoved and spat at – something his meteoric rise left him unprepared for.
“Finding myself as a public figure and being confronted with this was a bit of a shock, and I haven’t developed the sort of thick skin that others have,” he says.
“My mum worries about me all the time. Obviously, we have had cases of MPs being attacked and I would still say the risk is extremely low, realistically, but I would say what it does is make me kind of cautious about public interactions.
“A couple of months ago I caught a train going into work and somebody recognised me and it was peak time. We’re all standing around this guy who is shouting at me, but there’s nowhere to go. You are stuck on the carriage... and it’s just a bit wearing.”
“Now when I book a restaurant, I would normally book under a different first name… so it doesn’t attract attention.”
Now he is growing used to the high-profile nature of Westminster politics, and having failed to secure a senior government role, Frost finds himself with time on his hands to make that transition to the Commons, should he wish.
And if he does make the transition from the upper to the lower House, he would be better placed than ever to join a future cabinet – and bring his influence to bear once more on Britain’s post-Brexit future.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.