Boris Johnson’s former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost has put his support behind Liz Truss. He sat down with Freddie Sayers to explain that decision, and whether today’s Conservatives add up to a philosophy of government…
Was Rishi Sunak’s claim to have single-handedly prevented another national lockdown at Christmas 2021 accurate?
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I think, to be honest, a number of factors were there. There was the parliamentary revolt by Steve Baker and Mark Harper and others. I think my unexpected departure was part of it, and the Cabinet clearly wouldn’t go along with it. So I think there’s quite a lot going on… I think the only conclusion you can draw is that I was the only person to leave over opposition to the COVID measures and plan B. In the end, the rest of the Cabinet supported them.
Why should Brexiteers support Liz Truss, who voted Remain, over Rishi Sunak, who voted Brexit?
There’s no point in saying you’re in favour of Brexit if you’re not willing to do the things that make Brexit succeed. In my view, what’s necessary is significant reform, liberalisation, change, a somewhat smaller state, lower taxation, domestic reform, while rebuilding an effective state that can do important things properly, like control the borders, law and order… All those things go together. And that’s why for me, Liz Truss is the candidate who best encapsulates them. She gets that we need to change. Things need to be done very, very differently to how they’ve been done over the last 25 years and we need to start that now.
So you proposing Liz Truss as the “change candidate”?
I do think that there is a fundamental choice being offered between continuity and change. And when I look at Rishi Sunak, how he started the campaign, it does seem to be on a much more sort of continuity Conservative, fiscal conservatism and responsibility, pitch. Now, obviously, in principle, those are important things. But I think at the moment, we’re at a time where we need to support growth, we need to kickstart the economy and get ourselves moving again, get out of the immobilism, and the slow growth and productivity that we’ve got used to in recent years. And that’s why I think a change of direction is most important.
What happened to “sound money” Conservatism? Truss is in favour of more borrowing.
I don’t think either Rishi, or Liz, are proponents of modern monetary theory or the idea that borrowing doesn’t matter. I don’t think either of them would say that. I think what the Liz campaign is saying, given where the economy is at the moment, some leaning towards a bit of fiscal relaxation and reversing the tax increases that we brought in is the right thing to do.
Everyone seems to be talking about Thatcher on this campaign — it’s not very Thatcherite to be in favour of more borrowing is it?
Mrs Thatcher came in at a time when the challenges faced by the country were quite different ones … She came in at a time when the British state had just called in the IMF, fiscal responsibility was something that seemed to have gone out of the window a long time before. And the focus had to be establishing credibility with markets, that somebody had a grip once again. Now we’re in a different position. The country, the successive governments, do have fiscal credibility compared to many others around the world. The question is, what do you do with that, without losing it? Mrs. Thatcher also believed in growth. She believed in reform, she believed in change, she believed in boosting productivity, and those are also Thatcherite things and that’s what we need to be doing in the short run. We need to be increasing the size of the cake so we can do some of these other desirable things as well.
In retrospect, do you think there was an irreconcilable division between “free market” Brexiteers and “protectionist” Brexiteers?
I think both of those elements were clearly in there and in the debate afterwards. But I think they’re an oversimplification… Most Brexiteers, even the most economically liberal, free market ones, would still say that immigration control was an important thing to achieve. So I think the contrast between inward-looking protectionist and outward-looking globalist oversimplifies. I do think that there is no choice for the country other than free market reform, change, getting taxes down, getting the state a bit smaller. All history, all experience we’ve got around the world, shows those are the ways in which you increase prosperity and wealth. And anyone who says there’s an alternative “Fortress Britain” way of achieving that, is, I think, simply wrong, and can be proven wrong by history and politics.
Surely many Brexit voters were looking for the opposite – for more protection from the globalised economy?
I think there’s a spectrum on this, and there probably are people you can find who would say that large state, social democrat-type economics, and very strong border controls are an important thing for the country in future. I don’t agree with that. I think it’s probably a minority view in the Brexit coalition. Equally, I think that the very deracinated globalisation that we’ve seen in recent years, in which there was a lot of offshoring, in which big companies seemed not to care about where they operated from, and only to look at costs, and not to look at where they were rooted, was also a problem. And I think it’s moving away from that. If you’re in favour of free markets, that doesn’t mean you need to be in favour of every barrier disappearing and big companies being able to do what they like. It’s finding the right point on the spectrum.
Is “Levelling Up” now ever going to happen?
Every British government for the last 100 years or so has tried to achieve it. And most of them haven’t succeeded. I think there are some very deep economic forces of geography and history that pull economic activity towards southern England. That’s probably been enhanced by EU membership, and being part of the single market, though that’s certainly not the main underlying cause of it. I think if parts of the country are less productive, as some are, the right response is to reduce the burdens. And I would say the right way to do it is reduce tax rates, expand the free ports, have bigger areas where it’s easier to act and invest and get things going, rather than have very big transfers of government money from south to north to simplify. That I think we’ve seen doesn’t work from historical experience and we need to do something different.
So is the much-hyped “Red Wall” Conservatism, more comfortable with state intervention, already finished before it started?
I think everybody’s committed still to making devolution work and build up regional mayors and the ability of people to do things the way they want locally. But I think it is only part of the picture. Success isn’t only extracting money from central governments and using it to generate things. It’s about becoming self-reliant, generating private sector movement somewhere to increase things. And once again, I think the difference between Red Wall and Blue Wall is an over-simplification. I don’t think Conservative voters in the Red Wall are particularly different from voters in the Blue Wall. They know the importance of business, they want freedom, they want to make a success of their own lives and build things, and they want the social capital that comes with being part of a successful economy and country. And I don’t think there’s any real difference. Let’s not forget, in the ’83 election, Mrs Thatcher won a good chunk of what’s now the Red Wall with exactly that sort of appeal. It’s not something new.
How will history remember Boris Johnson?
I think history will judge him more kindly than a lot of people have in the last month or two. He cut through and resolved the constitutional crisis. I think, for all the fact that I ended up going over Covid, I think our record on Covid in this country is better from the freedom and the economics point of view than many others. I think one can fairly say that. And obviously, I think he got the calls on Ukraine right. And I think that is a good record for three years. I’m very sorry about what has happened…
I loved working with him. He’s, he’s an amazing guy. And I’ve never met anybody like him. It’s obvious that his shadow as a kind of campaigner and the delivery of Brexit will remain for quite a long time.
Did it all go wrong when Dom Cummings left?
I’m an admirer of Dom, although I haven’t agreed with him on everything. I think he brought an ability to see beyond the day to day, to set strategy, work out where he wants to go and get there. Every successful government does need people like that. They don’t need to do it in the way Dom did it necessarily, but if you don’t have that strategic grip, you eventually are pushed around by the day to day media, the lobby, the normal ways of doing things. And I think that’s what began to happen.
Do you think Liz Truss could realistically ever match Boris Johnson’s majority?
Majorities of 80 come along pretty rarely, and it takes exceptional circumstances which we had in 2019. These things don’t always replicate themselves… The number of seats you win isn’t the only test. Can she win a convincing majority that shows that people are comfortable with what has happened, hopefully after a couple of years and can take us forward? Absolutely. We can do that.