9th December 2020
The United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson has come to a fork in the road on his Brexit journey.
One direction is for those who are irresponsible.
To take this route he has to go for ‘no deal’ – that is for the United Kingdom to not have a relationship in place with the European Union once the Brexit transition period ends on 31st December 2020.
This will mean no agreement on tariffs, or on the trade in services, or on security and information sharing, or on numerous policy areas not to do with fishing as well as fishing, or on regulatory equivalence and how any divergence is managed.
This would be an extraordinary disruptive change in our relationship with the European Union in just a few days from now.
But the irresponsible route has been taken before in the Brexit journey: a referendum without any preparation for a Leave vote; an Article 50 notification without planning or thought; and a refusal to extend the transition period when there was an opportunity to do so.
The ‘irresponsible’ route has been taken before: it has ‘form’.
One can imagine that route being chosen.
The other direction is for the unprincipled.
To take this route Johnson has to renege on many things he has said he would not do.
He needs to accept the European Union’s unbending position on regulatory equivalence and on governance of the agreement.
And this will conflict with the things he has said to his political supporters and others on ‘sovereignty’ and limiting the reach of Brussels.
To now go against these commitments would be hypocritical
But this route also has been taken before in his Brexit journey: he wrote two columns, for and against, and made promises to the then prime minister before supporting leave; he voted against and then for the next prime minister’s deal; he accepted the withdrawal agreement on terms he had previously opposed; and he told the electorate he had an ‘oven ready deal’ before then legislating so as to break that same deal.
The unprincipled route too has been taken before and has ‘form’.
One can imagine that route being taken instead.
Clever wags will, of course, respond to the title of this post with ‘both’.
But he cannot do both, not on this occasion.
While there are elements of irresponsibility and lack of principle in many actions he – and most other politicians – will take, there is a real and stark decision here.
A binary situation: either/or.
Johnson either accepts the terms on offer from the European Union, or he does not.
There may be other apparent routes: he could affect that the European Union has given in on something, or there could perhaps be (yet another) extension of the Brexit process.
But these deflections hide or delay the ultimate decision: no deal or a deal on the terms of the European Union.
The decision that is taken may perhaps one day seem to historians as inevitable all along.
But looking at it from the outside in early December 2020, it is genuinely difficult to work out which route this prime minister will take.
Both directions have the force of narrative behind them.
Both seem plausible next chapters in the book of Brexit.
So the question for our prime minister is: are you more irresponsible than unprincipled, or vice versa?
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