Just short of a year since the UK signed a future relationship deal with the EU – the Trade and Cooperation Agreement – its architect, and Boris Johnson’s adviser and Brexit minister David Frost, has resigned. It was the imposition of ‘Plan B’ Covid measures, rather than Brexit, that Lord Frost said was the catalyst for his decision to step down, but he also signaled a wider unhappiness with the “direction of travel” under this government that did not fit with his own post-Brexit vision.
Until recently, the prime minister had given Lord Frost a lot of latitude on the UK–EU relationship and domestic post-Brexit opportunities. His approach was one of confrontation and competition: taking a hardline approach to negotiating changes the Northern Ireland protocol and seeking to take advantage of the UK’s new-found sovereignty to challenge the regulatory hegemony of the bloc. But in recent months, the UK government appears to have softened its tone, which may have even contributed to Frost’s departure.
As foreign secretary, Liz Truss will assume responsibility for EU relations, and will take up the difficult task of continuing negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol. But other remits of the now vacated role of Brexit minister – namely for securing Brexit opportunities and the implementation of the trading relationship – are as yet unassigned. This risks a worrying lack of focus at a time policy makers on both sides of the Channel are under strain.
The announcement that Liz Truss would take over Frost’s responsibility for UK–EU relations, made within hours of the resignation being confirmed, should have the benefit of re-integrating European policy within broader foreign policy. It could also provide the opportunity to refresh the relationship after five years of tense negotiations. But the immediate priority must be the ongoing negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol.
Truss will take over at a pivotal moment. Good progress has been made on issues such as medicines and customs, and an agreement on reducing the level of checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland looks possible, even if a little way off. But there remain big stumbling blocks to progress – including on the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland.
To get an agreement with the EU, the UK government will need to be willing to compromise. That might not be popular with the parts of the Conservative Party that Truss wants to keep happy, or with her new junior minister and former chair of European Research Group, Chris Heaton-Harris. But otherwise Truss risks becoming locked in an endless cycle of negotiations that hinders her ability to make progress with her other foreign policy priorities. With Northern Ireland assembly elections approaching in May, political tensions could escalate in the region if the issue is left unresolved. Truss should capitalise on this moment as an opportunity for a reset and pave the way for a more cooperative and constructive new year.
Beyond “taking back control” of policy in areas that were previously managed at the EU level – for example on immigration and agriculture – Lord Frost viewed Brexit as providing “a freedom to experiment and freedom to act”, stating an ambition to prompt a mindset shift within government which embraced a different risk appetite. He also recently announced a planned trawl through the body of EU law copied onto the UK statute book at the end of the transition period to assess whether they are still fit for the UK. 
With responsibility for EU relations wrapped into the Foreign Office, it would be an unusual move to handover the domestic agenda too – as the department has less experience, and capability, than the Cabinet Office of co-ordinating across domestic policy. Other departments such as the Treasury or business department may be better candidates for taking the lead in this area – but so far no announcement has been made.
If the Brexit opportunities unit does remain in the Cabinet Office, where Lord Frost was based, it may fall to Michael Ellis, the paymaster general, to push the agenda forward; he has been responsible for making statements in the Commons in Frost’s place (as a Lords minister, Frost was unable to make statements there). But Ellis is a junior minister – without a seat at the cabinet table, and without the authority to encourage departments to embrace that new ‘mindset’. It may make more sense, therefore, for Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to take over. Without a minister willing to ensure that delivering the ‘Brexit dividend’ remains a government priority, there is a risk that it will be put on the backburner.
It is not just the domestic agenda that is uncertain. Despite the government’s boast, Brexit is still not yet done – with further changes to the GB–EU trading relationship being phased in next year. The UK will introduce full customs controls on imports to Great Britain from the EU (except Ireland) on 1 January, and the most intensive border checks on agri-food imports are due to bite from July.
Back in February, Lord Frost took over responsibility for both business and government preparations from Michael Gove, with support from Michael Ellis. The prime minister needs to ensure that there is still ministerial responsibility for the implementation challenge that remains. The type of deal the government decided to strike with the EU was always going to involve additional bureaucracy and costs for business: it is vital for business that government focus and momentum remains.
With a new coronavirus variant, bringing with it new concerns about the economy, and the need to deliver its commitment to levelling up, the government might not be placing Brexit at the top of its agenda. But whether or not it can make a success of Brexit will be a defining part of its legacy – it should not allow personnel changes to derail that.