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Blame-gaming and rubbishing still the order of the day for UK establishment

London Letter: Cummings and Frost refuse to take responsibility in dramatic fashion

In his interview with BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg this week, Dominic Cummings affected a self-deprecating attitude as he decanted a bucket of ordure over the head of his former patron, Boris Johnson.

“My view is there’s very little that I actually know very much about, I’m open to all kinds of disagreements about things,” he said.

Cummings could not say for certain if Brexit, which he midwifed as director of the Vote Leave campaign, was a good idea. But there was one quality which in all modesty he could not deny.

“I can be confident on judgments like is so and so up for the job, or is so and so extremely able or extremely rubbish. Those sort of things I think I’ve shown good judgement on over the last few years,” he said.


The extremely rubbish are many, including the prime minister and his cabinet, most of the civil service, the Conservative party, MPs and the media. The extremely able are few, mostly data scientists, technologists and spies – and Otto von Bismarck.

Two of the extremely able who do not fall into the pattern of a nerdy schoolboy's fantasy friendship circle are the Brexit negotiating team of David Frost and Oliver Lewis. Frost was Johnson's special adviser when he was Theresa May's foreign secretary but his approach to negotiating with Michel Barnier soon won Cummings's confidence.

Lewis, known at Westminster as Sonic because he looks like the video game hedgehog, was a former Cummings sidekick on the Vote Leave campaign. When EU negotiators visited Downing Street, they marvelled at the respect shown by everyone from Johnson and Cummings downwards to Lewis, described by one as "this pasty-faced youth".

EU negotiators are to blame too for being more effective negotiators than their British counterparts

Frost and Lewis negotiated the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) with the EU last year but before that, they negotiated the text of the Northern Ireland protocol. This week, Frost admitted that they had made a mess of it, calling on the EU to renegotiate some of its central elements.

He did not, of course, take responsibility for his failure to get a better deal – that would be incompatible with the ethos of both the Johnson government and the Vote Leave faction of which Frost is a lonely remnant. Instead, he devoted much of the command paper outlining the proposals to blaming everyone from Theresa May to Conservative rebels at Westminster for the protocol's shortcomings.

EU negotiators are to blame too for being more effective negotiators than their British counterparts.

“Many UK proposals that would have subsequently made the protocol easier to operate were rejected,” Frost laments.

British ministers said this week that nobody envisaged that the protocol would create so much bureaucracy for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. But Johnson’s government spelled out precisely how the agreement would work in a detailed impact assessment published in October 2019.

“Agri-food goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland would need to be notified to the relevant authorities before entering Northern Ireland and would be subject to checks including identity, documentary and physical checks by UK authorities as required by the relevant EU rules. These processes would introduce additional costs,” it warned.

Standstill period

Frost’s demand for a wholesale renegotiation to make sweeping changes to the protocol he signed off on last year has infuriated Europeans. But the details of his demands are not especially important because they have no chance of being realised in the form he is seeking.

The most important British demand is for a standstill period during which the current implementation of the protocol is frozen and checks due to come into operation at the end of September are postponed again. So when Frost and his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic meet again in September, they will not be discussing the substance of the British proposals but negotiating a further extension of grace periods.

Although Frost protests that the protocol’s problems cry out for a permanent solution, his government would be content with an indefinite rollover of current arrangements while they try to persuade the EU to make further concessions. London could be right in its calculation that there is little appetite in European capitals for punishing Britain for failing to implement the protocol.

But the Europeans will also be keeping a wary eye on the implications of an indefinite rollover of the status quo in terms of international law, that blend of piracy and pedantry that can so easily make the makeshift immovable.