Lord Frost’s courageous resignation is a turning point in the history of this administration. A man of integrity, accomplishment and, crucially, principle, he was essential to achieving our withdrawal from the EU, when the cause seemed lost, and was negotiating reform of the catastrophic Northern Ireland Protocol, a process that will now be thrown into chaos. A born-again Brexiteer, he was one of the few who understood what leaving the EU was really about – and why recent policy is a betrayal of a cause he had embraced. In a speech given prior to standing down, he called for lighter regulation and lower taxes, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s warning at Bruges in 1988 that the UK had not shrunk the state at home only to import a European social democratic model by stealth.
That is precisely what Boris Johnson is now doing. Lord Frost was clearly angry at the assault on tax-payers, the obsession with an uncosted net zero agenda, the failure to hold firm in Protocol negotiations and – last but by no means least – the expansion of lockdown restrictions. He opposed Plan B, and was obviously against the next set of restrictions, the details of which have yet to be decided.
The question is: where are the other lockdown sceptics and Thatcherites in Cabinet? Why do they remain silent? By resigning over philosophy, Lord Frost ignites a necessary debate over how a Conservative Party is supposed to govern.
One answer is “collaboratively”. There is now an almighty push by some bureaucrats, armed by Sage data, to put the country in a Christmas lockdown, or at least subject it to far more severe restrictions at some point before the end of the year: the Cabinet must demand to be fully and seriously consulted before any such decision is taken. The PM does not rule by decree in our system, or by calling televised press conferences that announce a fait accompli to the nation and Cabinet; the fate of millions of citizens should not be decided in fraught and haphazard meetings in No10.
MPs should call the chief whip, and make it clear that they won’t be bound by collective responsibility until and unless any decision is taken properly by the Government as a whole. Everybody understands the modelling, which predicts an overwhelming explosion in hospitalisation even if triple-jabbed people are far more protected against omicron, because so many more folk will catch it at the same time. Scandalously, the Government has failed to purchase enough antiviral drugs (or to roll out the ones it has fast enough) or to increase the capacity of the NHS.
But the models – projections, not facts – only relate to one side of the ledger. What about the costs, economic, social, political and philosophical of more restrictions? The Government needs to explain the exact impact on each department of any fresh lockdown measures, what economic support measures will be put into place, such as any new kind of furlough, and how it would all be paid for. What would happen to the national debt, to taxes, to inflation? What would happen to the nation’s mental health? How would people cope if Christmas were hugely curtailed, or if New Year celebrations are eliminated? How many people and companies would go bankrupt? And what would the impact be on the public’s propensity to follow rules, given all the well-reported breaches by the powerful?
And would anything really change – would the Government finally start planning and preparing properly for the next vaccine-evading variant, or would we be stuck in an infernal lockdown loop for ever more?
Those in Cabinet who oppose some or all of this, or who are simply worried that not all aspects have been thought through properly, need to make their voices heard, loud and clear. They need to speak up, to try to influence policy. If Lord Frost was willing to quit a job he loved, can’t those who claim privately to be against another lockdown not flex their muscles too? After the last two months of political turmoil and flawed decisions, culminating in a disastrous collapse in the Tory poll ratings and a by-election calamity, the troubled organisation that is No10 can no longer afford to govern alone, in a vacuum. It must share power with the Cabinet, and decide collectively the best course of action for the country.