David Frost, in charge of UK’s Brexit negotiations, looks on as Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses at 10 Downing Street in central London (Leon Neal/Getty)

Co-published with the Centre for Brexit Studies:

Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, knew the UK was in trouble only weeks after its departure from the European Union.

Gove was the most ardent and calculating of Brexiteers. He sneered at specialists who spoke of the likely political, economic, and social consequences, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.” He scoffed at the EU as “wrong and sad“. He insisted last October, “we hold all the cards” vis-à-vis Europe.

But now, in February 2021, Gove saw UK trade with Europe plunge 68%. Failure to put in suitable customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was interrupting supplies, threatening manufacturers, farmers, and small businesses as well as stirring political discord.

So for the first time, the Minister acknowledged that the trade difficulties were not just “teething problems”. Rather than using Brussels as a punching bag, he worked with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič to safeguard the Northern Ireland Protocol — and thus prevent a “hard border” on the Irish island — as well as restoring movement of goods between Belfast and London.

But less than a week later, Gove was out. He was replaced as the Government’s man for Brexit implementation by David Frost, the hardline former chief negotiator. A “senior Tory source” cheered, “Finally Gove has been shunted….Frost is far more radical than Gove.” Also gone was a cooperative resolution with the EU, as Frost chided that a “different spirit” was required from Brussels.

On 3 March — two days after Frost formally took over from Gove — the Government unilaterally extended the suspension of customs arrangements for agricultural products moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. A day later, the extension was applied to parcels until October.

And as the Government broke international law for a second time over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Unionist paramilitary groups informed the UK and Irish Governments that they are withdrawing support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The EU’s Šefčovič, who weeks earlier had “frank but constructive discussions” with Gove, said Brussels was preparing legal action including a possible approach to the European Court of Justice.

“The UK Cannot Be Trusted”

The implications of the Government’s shift were shielded by diversionary gossip and tittle-tattle, from both the Johnson and Gove camps. Frost had been appeased with his renewed Brexit post, after he objected to appointments to Downing Street posts for the friends of Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds. The Prime Minister’s new Chief of Staff, Dan Rosenfeld, was failing to establish order and clashing with other Johnson advisors. The Times wrote of the “increasingly febrile atmosphere” in “Johnson’s Court of King Henry”.

But reality, if more prosaic than spectres of 16th-century monarchs and the clickbait of 2021, will soon be in the foreground. February’s trade statistics are awaited, but the political and economic pressure to break the Northern Ireland Protocol — and thus the Brexit agreement — is growing.

At the end of January, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster seized on a Coronavirus vaccine dispute between the UK and the EU to demand the scrapping of the Protocol. So did other DUP politicians and Conservative counterparts in London.

See also Brexit, Vaccine Nationalism, and the Future of the UK

With the elevation of Frost and sidelining of Gove, Prime Minister Johnson again tried to bury the necessity of a working relationship with the EU over Brexit’s implementation, instead favoring the short-term expediency of dog-whistle politics bashing Brussels.

He did so last September, when he promoted the violation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and of international law, with the Internal Markets Bill. However, on that occasion, he was able to step back to the final Brexit deal.

There is no step back this time from the political edge. The Government’s proclamation of a “progressive and good faith implementation of the Protocol” has significance only in its hollow ring.

Ireland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Simon Coveney explained, “If the UK cannot simply be trusted because they take unilateral action in an unexpected way without negotiation — well then the British government leaves the EU with no option.”

Bluster to Hide Reality

And there is no step back this from the economic edge. The statement of Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis — “If we’d have left it any longer we’d have had a risk for businesses and livelihoods of people in just a few weeks time” — betrayed the UK Government’s choice to fail.

As a “senior EU figure” summarized, “We were very constructive even after the Internal Market Bill was tabled, in looking for solutions, to keep talking. We believed we had solved all the issues in December. Now we have this surprise, this situation again.”

Rather than establishing the necessary customs provisions and operations, in the years before the completion of the Brexit deal and in the weeks after it, Johnson and his inner circle have chosen posturing.

On Sunday, the Government’s stenographer, The Telegraph, headlined Frost’s blast at the EU, “Stop Sulking“, and his command to “treat Brexit Britain as an equal“.

More bluster, for on the same Sunday, “industry sources” confirm that the Government is planning to ease border checks on food and other imports from the EU. The reason? Ministers’ fears that implementation of customs provision will further damage trade and lead to “severe shortages” in UK supermarkets.

More bluster, for now the wannabe “King Henry” and his court have not a shred of clothing for the forthcoming political, legal, and economic cold.