In his first week in charge of Britain's relations with the European Union, David Frost has made clear that he will apply the same diplomatic method to his new role as he did to his old one of chief Brexit negotiator. Wednesday's unilateral extension of grace periods under the Northern Ireland protocol brought echoes of last year's threat to break international law with the Internal Market Bill.
Last year's gambit did nothing for Britain apart from creating a potential problem for its relationship with Washington as well as Brussels, obliging Boris Johnson to make as graceful a retreat as he could manage. This week's manoeuvre will make less impact, partly because the EU was already preparing to concede many of Britain's demands and nobody in Brussels has the appetite for a noisy, pointless conflict.
Like last time, the European Commission is taking a low-key approach, pursuing legal action but making clear privately that negotiations about implementing the protocol will continue regardless. The dispute over the protocol will not affect parallel negotiations on various aspects of the broader relationship and the European Parliament remains likely to ratify the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).
Even on something as important to Britain as the current talks on granting “equivalence” to British financial services operators, the EU will not change course. It has always intended to offer access to its financial services market in accordance with its own interests and sentiment will not enter into that calculation.
Downing Street said on Thursday that it gave Brussels and Dublin a heads up but Wednesday’s move came as a surprise to almost everyone at Westminster. It was announced in a written ministerial statement on budget day, when the news was unlikely to receive much attention.
The timing and the nature of the announcement suggested that although Frost was acting with the authority of Downing Street, the prime minister’s heart might not have been in it.
Johnson promoted Frost to the cabinet and gave him responsibility for relations with the EU during a week of high emotion in Downing Street after the arrival of two senior aides who are friends of Johnson's fiancée Carrie Symonds. The remnant of the Vote Leave faction threatened to walk out and in an apparent panic, Johnson gave Frost a job to which he is unusually unsuited.
Vote Leave was a political style rather than an ideology and as an electoral method it was successful for Johnson in the 2016 referendum and in the 2019 election. But when Frost applied it as a diplomatic method, the outcome was the deal he agreed with the EU last December, the unhappy consequences of which are being played out in Britain each week.
Generations of British and other European diplomats sought guidance in the 18th century manual of diplomacy De la manière de négociér avec les Souverains by François de Callières. De Callières believed that diplomacy should not be based on deceit but like banking on mutual trust.
“The secret of negotiation is to harmonise the real interests of the parties concerned,” he wrote.
“Menaces always do harm to negotiation, since they often push a party to extremes to which they would not have resorted but for provocation. It is well known that a hurt vanity often goads men to courses which a sober estimate of their own interests would lead them to eschew.”
Throughout the Brexit negotiations, Frost handled his principal as poorly as his interlocutors, seldom encouraging Johnson towards more creative solutions or towards candour about the trade-offs involved. Some of his errors were of the most basic kind, so that he never understood that deadlines and time pressure were to Britain’s disadvantage rather than Europe’s.
But when the deal was agreed, sources close to the British negotiating team hailed it as a triumph, offering much of the credit to Frost’s diplomatic method.
“In pep talks, Lord Frost told his team that the EU’s negotiating style was most often comparable to a moody teenager or an attempt to crush the opposition like a tank,” the Times reported.
"Unflatteringly and to draw a line under the past, he compared Sir Olly Robbins, his predecessor under Theresa May, as a mouse. 'He gave us a four box grid of different modes of negotiator: teenager, tank, mouse, and leader. He told us the EU tends towards the first two and the UK has too often been a mouse. We needed to be the leader in the room and rise above things,' a senior member of his team said."
Frost's new role requires him to find solutions to some of the inadequacies of the deal he agreed last December but his ownership of the agreement and his pride in how he negotiated it make it harder for him than for someone with the guile of his predecessor Michael Gove.
Frost's other problem is that his combative approach is at odds with the new prevailing style at No 10 and with Johnson's broader aims and the prime minister will not wish to see continuing friction with Europe overshadow the G7 summit in June.