The journalist, who has no public responsibility, is a different creature from the politician, who does. I should know. Though it’s sometimes possible to be both. Think Boris Johnson, whose career at Westminster was shaped by his work at the Daily Telegraph. Has it found a replacement?
Step forward, David Frost – once the Government’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, until recently a member of the Cabinet, now a member of the Lords…and a columnist for the paper.
For which he is writing articles that will warm the hearts of many of its readers, lots of Conservative activists and, doubtless, readers of this website too. Frost is pro-Brexit, pro-tax cuts, anti-lockdown, anti-Net Zero: in other words, he is the Conservative right’s dream.
And now he is seeking a seat in the Commons, if his own hints and the paper’s campaigning is anything to go by. He recently told Nigel Farage on GB News that “you need to be in the Commons to do real politics, that’s obvious”.
“If in future the opportunity comes up and the party wants me to do it, obviously I would be ready to stand down from the seat and do proper politics again.” There is an entertaining debate about whether in such circumstances he would have to relinquish his title before election or after.
Frost’s point about the future was made in the context of the forthcoming by-election at Tiverton and Honiton. The Telegraph has been campaigning for him to have a crack at the seat.
It reported recently that the local Association wants a local candidate, and this takes me to practicalities. It is a statement of the bleeding obvious that Frost can only enter the Commons before the next general election by means of a by-election.
The safest Conservative seat is South Holland and the Deepings, where John Hayes chalked up 63 per cent of the vote in 2019.
But I’m not certain that even Hayes’ stupendous 30,838 majority would be safe in a by-election were he to stand down from the Commons before the next election (which he won’t be doing anyway). Frost will find it hard to find a by-election where he could be sure of winning, especially if he has no local roots in the place.
So the odds are that, if he persists in wanting to become an MP, he will have to wait until 2024 or whenever the contest takes place – assuming that he finds an Association willing to have him, which will surely be no problem.
Indeed, I imagine that they will be queueing up, and Frost would have the luxury of a “safe seat”. Could he then go straight back into Cabinet? If the Conservatives are in government and Boris Johnson is still leader, the answer will depend on whether the Prime Minister feels he needs the services of his former Chief Brexit Negotiator.
And how bruised the Prime Minister is feeling by Frost’s resignation from office last year. “You know my concerns about the current direction of travel,” he wrote to Johnson.
“I hope we will move as fast as possible to where we need to get to: a lightly regulated, low–tax, entrepreneurial economy, at the cutting edge of modern science and economic change.” The Mail on Sunday, which reported the resignation, had more.
Its editorial referred to his opposition to vaccine passports, disillusion over “the green-driven preoccupation with the target of Net Zero CO2 emissions” and support for tax cuts.
If Johnson returns as Prime Minister, he may well have a smaller majority, and in such circumstances might need Frost in office to shore up his position with the right of the Party. What if there is another Conservative Prime Minister in place?
In such an event, Frost’s potential front bench future would depend on who this person was, how well they got on, whether the then Prime Minister felt that he or she required Frost’s services.
And above all, whether he felt in need of placating the right. For Frost has acquired a legendary status among some Conservative MPs as the man who brought the principle of control back to the heart of Britain’s negotiating strategy – and delivered a deal based on it.
This contained the revised Northern Ireland Protocol: Johnson and Frost are inevitably now under fire for seeking to renege on a deal that they themselves signed.
That is a simplistic reading, since aspects of the Protocol have been subject to negotiation since it came into effect. See the 2020 deal on its operability in relation to most goods, state aid, unfettered access to the market in Great Britain and ending checks from goods going to Great Britain from Northern Ireland.
Or the EU’s change in its own laws to allow the flow of medicines in the same direction. Or its agreement with the Government over grace periods having threatened legal action over them three months earlier.
If you want Frost’s view of the Protocol’s history and future, here it is as set out recently to Policy Exchange. Next question: is he a future Tory leader? I feel rather like the king’s doctor in The Madness of George III who, when asked by the Prince of Wales whether the king could be ill, says tentatively: “he could“.
For the fact is that Frost has operated in government first as a special adviser, then as a negotiator and only later as Minister – from the Lords.
The Commons chamber is a rougher and readier place, and one can’t know how Frost would cope with it – or with its arts of building alliances, being “a good colleague”, working with others and so on: all necessary in the unelected chamber but still more in the elected one.
His manner is very much in his favour. To present hardline views in a softly spoken manner is a great asset for a politician (which is why the Conservatives were thankful in 2019 that Labour wasn’t led by John McDonnell).
Frost has it. My questionmark about him isn’t so much about whether the views he sets out in print are those he would effect in office – though that query always applies. And it isn’t necessary to agree with all his views, or think them all practicable, to believe that he would be an asset to the Commons.
After all, there’s a limit to the number of gifted people in the lower house, and Frost’s presence there would raise it by one. So bring it on.
My question, rather, is whether, having left the front bench because he was unhappy with the drift of policy, he might do it again if the same circumstance arose in future. Politics at the top means compromise, taking one for the team, feeling at ease with collective responsibility, and accepting that holding office is a bumpy ride.
At some point sooner rather than later, expect Frost to pop up in the Telegraph declaring this intentions. And why not? He’s much to offer.