The role of the PM's chief Brexit aide is a constitutional noveltyby Jill Rutter / February 25, 2020 / Leave a comment
Last week saw the clearest exposition of the UK’s negotiating position on Brexit. Not from the prime minister, who had had a go the week before in Greenwich—nor from other possible candidates—Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, or indeed Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, aka the minister in charge of most things the PM needs getting done.
Instead it came from a prime ministerial aide. Not the one most of the media is obsessed with, but arguably the one who will do the most to shape the UK’s future—the PM’s designated chief EU negotiator David Frost. But the fact that he was setting out the government’s approach—and his personal “journey” to Brexit—raises a host of interesting questions.
It is easiest to see David Frost as a straight line successor to Olly (now Sir Oliver for his pains) Robbins. Indeed he is objectively much better qualified for his role than Robbins ever was. Brussels experience—tick. European diplomatic posting—tick. Trade policy experience—tick. External industry representation—tick. If he had applied for the job within government, or to an external job advertisement, he would have been a strong contender with those credentials.
But that is not how he got the job. Frost is a special adviser, appointed by the prime minister. But he is a special adviser performing a task that goes, well, a long way beyond “advice.” No one would blink an eye if he was sitting in No 10 as the latest in a long line of foreign affairs or Europe advisers to the PM. But instead he seems to be taking a much more active role—an amalgam of the roles exercised before by the Brexit secretary—a cabinet minister—and a permanent secretary, Robbins.
If this is how the PM wants to run the negotiations, fine. Much better to have someone in charge he trusts. But he owes it to the rest of us to explain how this will work in practice and in particular how the accountability gap it leaves will be filled.
First, special advisers are supposed (at least formally) to keep their mouths shut. The…