There are two main ways in which David Frost’s forthcoming appointment as a full member of the Cabinet is being read. The first presents us with a wayward Boris Johnson – who, having plumped for order and claim in Downing Street by appointing Dan Rosenfield as Chief of Staff, has now gone for stirring his Government up again.
And he has duly done so by sidelining Michael Gove, wrong-footing Dominic Raab, and appointing Frost to stir it up with the EU (especially over the Northern Ireland Protocol).
The second portrays a Prime Minister who is not so much wayward as wavering. Faced with an unhappy Frost, who recently lost half his job, was threatening to resign, and whom he values, he has muddled through to a solution, upsetting Raab and Gove’s apple carts in order to do so.
Deciding whether version one, version two, both or neither are true isn’t helped by the usual frantic briefing and counter-briefing that follows such events.
So: yes, Frost threatened to quit; no, he didn’t. Yes, Gove is losing his power base; no, he himself urged Frost’s appointment. Yes, Raab and the Foreign Office have lost control of Europe policy; no, they haven’t – because Gove was dealing with much of it anyway, co-chairing the UK and EU bodies dealing with trade disputes and the Protocol.
As a guide through this fog of bluff, let’s start with facts. Oliver Lewis, one half of Johnson’s former Brexit negotiating team, was recently appointed head of Number Ten’s Scotland unit. Now Frost, the other, is to take over key post-Brexit constitutional and trade duties.
Which shows at the least that Johnson values both parts of that former team who, unlike Simone Finn and Henry Newman, the new Deputy Chief of Staff and a senior special adviser respectively, have a history of being his people – especially Frost, his former Special Adviser at the Foreign Office.
Since some of Gove’s responsibilities will now go to Frost, our reading of the appointment of Lewis looks on the money. Events are consistent with Gove moving out of the Cabinet Office when the reshuffle comes.
He may become Secretary of State for the Union, because he is the closest that any senior Minister comes to having total spectrum vision of the issues. Or he may go to the Home Office or the Department of Health, a move we floated on Saturday. There is a claim this morning that he will chair a new Cabinet sub-committee on the public services.
And since the Foreign Office will now lose his responsibility for co-ordinating relations with the EU to the Cabinet Office, in the form of Frost, a slice has indeed been cut out of Raab’s territory.
After all, this is the department that commissioned an apostolic succession of European diplomats – policy-shapers all, from the age of Michael Palliser through John Kerr to Kim Darroch. Now men who worked to binding Britain into the continental project have been replaced by a man who toiled to loose us from it: Frost.
None knows the twists and turns of the trade negotiation better, and the new Cabinet member is in a position to make waves over shellfish and move on meat – pushing perhaps for changes to the Protocol.
To describe Frost in that way, incidentally, is a form of shorthand. For he won’t take up his new post until March 1 – at which point the number of full Cabinet Ministers will be pushed up to 23, assuming there are no further shocks before then. Incidentally, the maximum number of Ministers paid at Cabinet rank is 22. So either one really is going this month, or Frost will be paid at a different rate (more likely).
Until Alok Sharma’s appointment as COP26 President, the Prime Minister had got the number of full Cabinet Ministers down to 21. What’s there now has an improvised feel to it.
Which takes us back to what Johnson is up to. Wavering or wayward? Neither – just toughening up his EU and constitutional team? All that can safely be said is that, a week ago, he was short of political advice. Now he has Frost, Finn and Newman in place, amidst claims that the first doesn’t see eye to eye with the second and third. Party members will greet his appointment with enthusiasm, as do we.
A final cat among these flapping pigeons. There’s no reason why Frost shouldn’t, in due course, be a Secretary of State and run a department. After all, a peer ran a department as recently as 2010.
Only two people can be claimed to have controlled the Prime Minister during his career in politics. One, Dominic Cummings, was front of house, for all his formal status as an adviser. The other, Simon Milton, moved about backstage, helping to shape Johnson’s agenda and operation when the latter was Mayor of London. The first has left and the second is dead.
In their absence, the Prime Minister is doing what he does naturally: presiding over a court of different interests and outlooks, in which his old London gang, long marcher allies in the Commons, Vote Leave comrades, bandwagon riders and new appointments jostle for position – and to get things done their way in the national interest as they see it.
We have an illustration, wheeled out from time to time, of Johnson with an angel and a devil perched at each shoulder, giving him conflicting advice. On reflection, this misrepresents the position. He is the devil. He is the angel.