Illustration by Tim McDonagh. Photo:

David Frost: from mandarin to minister

The man who managed the final stages of the UK's Brexit negotiations is now charged with overseeing our ongoing relationship with the EU
September 3, 2020

On the face of it, Dominic Cummings and David Frost could not be more different. Boris Johnson’s best-known adviser is a political showman who sets out to court publicity and stir up controversy. At times, Cummings seems to be turning his Downing Street career into a piece of performance art, with deliberately dishevelled costumes curated down to the last beanie hat, and lines delivered with panache to the reporters who wait outside his home. When he wore a back-to-work suit this week it made the headlines because it was so out-of-character.

The prime minister’s other most-trusted aide prefers to shun the limelight. Frost may be the chief Brexit negotiator, but he operates behind the scenes—discreet, conventional and slightly introverted. In meetings, he fades into the background, suitably camouflaged in traditional office wear and always wearing a tie. He does not talk of “creative destruction” or quote the old Facebook motto “move fast and break things” with the swagger of a schoolboy revolutionary. He would never compare cabinet ministers unfavourably to the television superheroes PJ Masks or parade his importance by ostentatiously refusing to tuck in his shirt. He could not be categorised in any sense as a “weirdo or a misfit with odd skills.”

Frost, a former diplomat, is less famous and flamboyant than his colleague, but he is arguably more powerful than Cummings will ever be. As the leader of No 10’s Taskforce Europe, he is running the trade talks that will determine Britain’s fate beyond the pandemic, and shape the country’s economic fortunes and place in the world for a generation. And he is doing so on a desperately tight timetable, set by the hard legal deadline for the end of the transition period on 31st December. Should there be no agreement, and we crash out of the EU without a negotiated trade deal, then all sorts of tariffs and other disruptions could be introduced overnight, and the horrors that lurked when a no-deal Brexit loomed last year would be upon us—stalled car production lines, slaughtered sheep and lengthy queues at the ports. But should things go smoothly, with Britain retaining its advantages in trading with Europe while also acquiring new freedoms to pursue commerce around the world, the UK will have the best chance it could hope for to make Brexit a success. So it is not the merits of any of Cummings’s disruptive brainwaves, but Frost’s success or failure that will, for better or for worse, settle the place of the Johnson administration in the history books.

What’s more, this autumn Frost—a Brexiteer—is taking up the role of National Security Adviser and—in a manner almost unheard of for a serving government official—joining the House of Lords. It is a sign of his influence, and the trust that the prime minister places in him, that he should be allowed to hold such important roles simultaneously, and at a point when his first and critical task will be far from completed. Moreover, Frost, a special adviser, is replacing career civil servant Mark Sedwill, the outgoing cabinet secretary, in his national security capacity, making him the living embodiment of the drift towards a more politicised system under Johnson and his Vote Leave band. He is thus not only the man most likely to make or break the government, but a symbol of the way it rules.

“Frosty,” as he is known in Downing Street, stands out not only for the jobs he has been given, but also for his convictions: he is exceptionally rare in being a product of the diplomatic corps who is in favour of Brexit. And yet he is anything but a natural rebel.

About the only “colourful” facts uncovered in previous profiles were that he is a fan of Derby County Football Club as well as of the cult Canadian rock band Rush.  Beyond that, the David Frost story is that of a rise, through hard work and reasonable ability, from middle English respectability to elite power. 

Born in Derby in 1965, Frost attended Nottingham High School as a free scholar, then went to Oxford, where he took a first in French and history. He was there at the same time as Johnson but they were not friends, and Frost would never have been invited to join the Bullingdon Club. In fact, he seems to have gone through his time at university without making much impact on those around him. Nico Mann, who taught him medieval French literature, has vivid memories of Frost’s “brilliant” tutorial partner Wes Williams, now a professor, but of the prime minister’s Europe adviser he said: “I remember nothing at all about him. There are people who walk into your room and you notice them. David Frost wasn’t one of those.”

Although his recent political appointments have been controversial, Frost’s early diplomatic career was conventional. He joined the Foreign Office in 1987 and rose through the ranks, spending time at the British High Commission in Nicosia, the United Nations in New York and as Economic Counsellor to the British Embassy in Paris, before ending up as ambassador to Denmark. It sounds like an impressive rank to reach at the age of 41, although—given the cordial and sleepy relations between Copenhagen and London in the later New Labour years—it might have felt like a posting a long way from power, and further from serious controversy.

Through these years, he seems to have been regarded by top mandarins as competent, but in no way dazzling. John Kerr is a former head of the diplomatic service (who originally drafted the EU’s famous “Article 50” for departing states) for whom Frost worked as a private secretary on his way up the Foreign Office ladder. Kerr recalled his former staffer as being: “Very diligent and conscientious, good at carrying out instructions, not always as good at querying instructions.” That is not intended as a compliment: the best civil servants know how to speak truth to power. Peter Ricketts, a former head of the FCO and national security adviser, who knew Frost at the Foreign Office, is equally damning with faint praise: “He kept himself to himself, he doesn’t have much personal impact or draw attention to himself. He’s competent, hard-working, on top of his brief, clearly intelligent—one of the brighter diplomats of his generation—but in personality, he’s a rather diffident, introspective character.” Back then he “never sought the bright lights” or planned to go “front of stage.”

Frost’s colleagues and contemporaries regarded him more as another cog in the machine than as a political player. David Henig, UK Director at the European Centre for International Political Economy, worked with him for three years at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, where Frost was transferred as Director for Europe and International Trade in 2010. “He struck me as a remarkably normal, mid-term, senior rank civil servant” Henig said. “Boring in an OK way, not necessarily the most brilliant person in a room but not the worst. Everybody looks at David and says ‘what’s the secret?’ Nobody really knows, he keeps chugging away.”

But this is, Henig thinks, the appeal to Johnson and his circle: “You always have to find ‘outsider-insiders.’” It is an identity that may be particularly relevant for EU negotiations, that require both a familiarity with the institutions and a willingness ultimately to walk away.

Frost’s Euroscepticism is what sets him apart from most of his former Foreign Office colleagues—and many of those who have worked with him over the years remain slightly baffled by the origin of this distinctive quality. “The real mystery,” according to Charles Grant—the director of the Centre for European Reform think tank, who has known Frost for two decades and stayed with him in Copenhagen when he was ambassador—“is why he became so Eurosceptic. In the Foreign Office he never struck me as particularly Eurosceptic, he certainly wasn’t a Leaver and his views on the EU were fairly mainstream.” So what happened?

[su_pullquote]"The real mystery is why he became so Eurosceptic"[/su_pullquote]

In 1993, Frost was posted to the UK Representation in Brussels as First Secretary for Economic and Financial Affairs. It turned out to be a defining moment in his career, even if that wouldn’t be evident for many years. By Frost’s own account he arrived a “typical pro-European,” but after years battling bureaucracy—at the very time when Johnson was writing (and sometimes confecting) hair-raising Brussels-bashing stories for the Daily Telegraph—he lost faith in the European dream.

In a speech in February of this year, Frost described a Damascene conversion. His positive youthful view of the EU “did not long survive my exposure to the institutions in Brussels and I rapidly became a persistent private critic of them,” he told his audience at ULB Brussels University.

In 2013, Frost left the Foreign Office and accepted a job as the head of the Scotch Whisky Association. In his Brussels speech, he claimed that it was a “form of cognitive dissonance” about the value of his work that eventually “drove” him out of the foreign service.

Others do not quite remember it like that. One acquaintance said “he was passed over for jobs at the Foreign Office because he wasn’t quite in the top drawer and he still resents that”; another recalled that “the consensus in Whitehall was he wasn’t very good at people management.” A third suggests that the Euroscepticism morphed into a crude attempt to “curry favour” with the Vote Leave crowd.

Either way, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, Frost was still head of the Scotch Whisky Association, and as such was paid to lobby ministers to maintain the benefits of the single market. “It lets us trade across the EU simply and easily and helps give us fairer access to other overseas markets” was one of his lines. Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Tory leader who was a doughty campaigner against Brexit and at times a pointed critic of Johnson, met Frost on the Edinburgh corporate circuit. He was “utterly professional,” she said. “All business and an effective advocate for the sector.”

At the end of his three-year spell in Edinburgh, Frost had a rare moment in the headlines when, in an article in the Times, he described Scotland’s cities as “overrated” and claimed he would remember the capital as much for its “filthy streets” and “overflowing bins” as its beautiful scenery. It was an uncharacteristic lapse into inflammatory language—but Frost was slowly morphing into a political player. In a 2015 pamphlet for the think tank Open Europe about the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership, he had criticised the “unambitious” approach being taken by the Cameron government and called for Britain to “widen the ‘Overton window’ for EU policy”—exactly the same phrase used by radical socialists urging the Labour Party to somehow shift the centre of political gravity to the left.

Frost’s rhetoric and arguments were noticed by Johnson, then London mayor, and when he was appointed foreign secretary in 2016 he brought Frost in as a special adviser. For Frost’s critics, jumping on board the Brexiteer bus at this point was a way to advance his ambitions when the conventional Foreign Office route had failed. One insider who knows him said that having been left “in a bit of a huff” a few years ago, his attitude to the Foreign Office now became: “These people never valued me and now I’m back and screw you, now I’m in charge.” On that reading, Frost and Cummings may in fact be more similar than they look.

Admirers, however, point out that the chronology does not really support that theory. “Boris constituted a huge gamble for Frosty,” said one. “Remember where Boris was in 2016-18, those were the miserable foreign secretary years. He joined him, took a risk on that, effectively went into the wilderness with Boris [when he resigned from May’s government], then came back on board through the period of the leadership election. If it was opportunism, it was high-risk opportunism.” 

Ricketts spots a symbiotic relationship between Frost and Johnson. “They’re very contrasted characters, perhaps that means they’re a good foil for one another.” The prime minister is a natural performer, who loves clowning around, often using humour to deflect difficult questions. But both as a journalist and as a politician, he has always surrounded himself with more solid, serious figures who can handle the detail on his behalf. As London mayor he had Eddie Lister, who then followed him into No 10. Frost plays the same role on the international stage. Another voice who knows him well said: “He’s the opposite of Boris in many ways—serious, dour, unflamboyant. Boris knows what he needs.”

[su_pullquote]“Theresa May keeps quiet these days, but spoke up to warn MPs that Frost had ‘no proven expertise in national security’”[/su_pullquote]

Johnson’s admiration, and dependence, has now seen Frost parachuted into the National Security Adviser post. Its sensitivity, and the fact he is replacing the outgoing cabinet secretary—the grandest mandarin of the lot—mean this appointment is much to the chagrin of Whitehall traditionalists. Ricketts judges that Frost’s evolving position “is a very odd one. He is halfway between a backroom special adviser and a front-of-house presenter of government policy.” And he despairs of him as “a symbol of the fact that in this government, political loyalty is more important than merit or competence… It’s completely corrosive and toxic.” He is worried that the UK civil service’s traditional impartiality is being eroded as “a political loyalty test is being applied,” in which being “one of us” becomes a criterion for promotion.

“It’s cronyism,” said a former minister who worked with Frost at the Foreign Office. “This is not a dignified appointment on merit, it’s yet another Brexit appointment.” Remarkably, Theresa May—who has had almost nothing to say in public about the Johnson administration since it replaced hers a little over a year ago—has also weighed in. A former home secretary as well as PM, she is keenly interested in security, and made an exception to tell the Commons that Frost had “no proven expertise in national security.”

Allies of Frost insist that he dealt with security issues as a special adviser and ambassador: “He’s actually got a hell of a lot of qualifications.” And one senior Tory compared him to Henry Kissinger, national security adviser under US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy guru. “He is hugely powerful,” this well-connected insider said. “All great advisers are controversial, they ruffle feathers, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad. They can be disrupters.”

But it was not just Whitehall’s sense of propriety—and the oddity of a serving adviser making a big and controversial intervention—that raised eyebrows when Frost gave his big speech in Brussels at the start of the year. There was also concern—not least in the EU negotiating team—about its ideological tone, and what that could imply for the coming negotiations. “Independence does not mean a limited degree of freedom in return for accepting some of the norms of the central power. It means independence—just that,” Frost warned Michel Barnier, citing as his inspiration Charles de Gaulle, “the man who always behaved as if his country was a great country even when it seemed to have fallen very low, and thus made it become a great country yet again.”

The normally reticent Frost isn’t one to freewheel, and this speech was delivered with the full approval of No 10. Paul Goodman, the editor of the blog ConservativeHome, wrote at the time: “The prime minister clearly wanted to send a signal: ‘Frost speaks for me. What he says is what I believe. What he pronounces is what I will do.’ He is His Master’s Voice.”

But for many Whitehall veterans, the speech was an indication of narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness in a negotiator—and also revealed Frost to be over eager to distance himself from his predecessor, May’s Europe adviser Olly Robbins. In the words of one former diplomat, the address was: “Totally tin eared and thus universally presumed to be addressing only the ultras back home, and reassuring them that he was not some Quisling Olly Robbins type. Undermined himself straight away.”

But senior Tories are by contrast convinced that it is helpful to have the negotiations run by someone who believes in the Brexit project and can argue with conviction for the UK position—rather than seeing their job as “damage limitation,” the criticism made of May’s team by the Tory right. And given the foibles of the prime minister, some of the posturing may be the precondition for Frost being able to get on and do his job. At Westminster, after all, confidence is as crucial as competence. One, who knows Frost and Brussels well, reflected: “I do believe that on Brexit, Frost is even more important than Cummings, because Boris trusts him.” He may lack independence, but perhaps precisely because of that he also has the ear of the prime minister. He has reportedly persuaded Johnson to tone down the rhetoric—discouraging him from saying counter-productive things like the EU can “go whistle” for its money, for example. He can give that advice—and be listened to—because everyone knows where he stands.

In negotiations, however, trust is not only—or even mostly—about your own team. And Johnson’s Europe adviser has struggled to build it with the other side. Unusually for a diplomat, Frost is not worried about making enemies nor is he that interested in making friends. In Brussels, he is seen as distant and difficult. EU officials contrast him despairingly with the man he replaced: “Robbins was always imagining solutions and compromises,” said one. “Frost seems to think all you have to do is wait for the other side to admit they’re wrong and come round to your position. He’s like a brick wall, inflexible and obdurate.”

Others confirm that Frost’s uncompromising approach has gone down badly. “The crassness of what he has said publicly has surprised his opposite numbers,” said one former senior diplomat with strong contacts across the EU. “They expected the guy would at least know his stuff in depth. They view him as a political appointment who is obeying instructions from above as to how to play it. He very rarely turns up in capitals. He does not listen; only transmits.” That matters in a negotiation that depends on building personal relationships. Although all sides are reeling from the impact of the pandemic, Frost has been utterly supportive of the prime minister’s refusal to request an extension to the transition period.

Frost’s supporters maintain that he delivered a Brexit withdrawal deal for Johnson last October that many had thought unachievable. “David Frost came in in 2019 with the British State three-nil down in the negotiation with the Irish and the EU,” said Dean Godson, director of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange. “With the full backing of Boris, Frost helped turn the outcome into a score draw, which no one thought possible… And it was a substantive score draw which—unlike the previous Olly Robbins-led negotiations—obtained the support of the Commons. He has shown he can play at the highest levels and secure a result.”

But others who observed the talks closely are much less kind about the contribution of Frost towards a deal which, it should not be forgotten, involved a late British climbdown on a new border in the Irish Sea, a supposed UK red line. Whitehall sources suggest that Frost was over-ruled by the prime minister, who insisted on compromise after his meeting with Leo Varadkar, then Irish Taoiseach. Until then, in the words of one source, Frost had instead remained a “total devotee” of the idea that technology could solve the Irish border conundrum, “and stuck to it long after it was completely obvious to all that it would not fly.” The only flexibility here came from the PM: “Johnson junked it when he realised it had zero chance.”

To No 10, however, it was a shared success—and as a result, Britain’s future remains in Frost’s hands. By year’s end, we will find out whether we should have been cheering or weeping at the way this conventional figure managed to cut his unconventional path to the top.