The fork in the road to Brexit – Boris Johnson has to choose between being irresponsible or being unprincipled

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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35 thoughts on “The fork in the road to Brexit – Boris Johnson has to choose between being irresponsible or being unprincipled”

  1. I’m very grateful to you for this post on this particular morning because it does force me to think more clearly as I anxiously await what will happen.

    Mr. Johnson is, as you’ve inferred, capable of being both, and (where situations permit) will be both. But, in the rare instances where he’s had to choose, it seems that he has chosen to be unprincipled in preference to being irresponsible.

    That would indicate that he may go for a deal.

    The only fly that I can detect in this particular ointment is this: Is he more fearful of the ERG or the electorate? – Because if it is the former, he may feel forced to act irresponsibly so he can hang on a bit longer.

    He chose the wrong road four years ago. I wonder if he ever ponders on how different things might have been?

    1. I think his calculation will be political. He’s got a sizable majority in the HoC, and four years to run before that is seriously threatened. Whilst the ERG will bellyache, a ‘soft’ deal will probably have the support of many Opposition MPs (either that, or they’ll abstain). He should therefore be able to get the ‘soft’ deal through Parliament.

      He’ll also be aware how potentially catastrophic No Deal will be, and that he doesn’t want to be remembered as the PM that charged into it.

      Would it be too glib to suggest that he, more than anyone, feels “the hand of history on his shoulders” and goes for the deal?

      1. Yes, his calculation, and therefore his choice will, of necessity and self-interest, be political.

        I have a suspicion that he has already written his two letters, and that Times photo, where he could indeed have been throwing a dice, may be an accurate metaphor for his current state of mind.

        Incidentally, I don’t think you are being glib in your suggestion. Does he run Churchillian dialogue through his mind all day? I could imagine it. If so, I hope he has reflected upon this one: “Politics is more dangerous than war, for in war you are only killed once.”

  2. The Daily Telegraph suggests that ‘senior Brexiters’ are desperate to avoid ‘no deal’ (now they tell us).

    Given this info, I suppose that the author would plump for the UK Prime Minister agreeing to stand by the PD.

  3. If Johnson believes in anything, it is in the power of rhetoric and in his own rhetorical ability. He is prone to chose the dramatic and extravagant option as a framework for his grandiloquent pronouncements. Progress by small steps and political compromise holds no appeal for him. The grandiose defeats the mundane, always.

    So it looks like No Deal accompanied by jingoistic boosterism.

    I hope I am wrong.

  4. Boris is unprincipled at all times, but that doesn’t mean that he will take that route, because he is entirely idle and selfish, so damage to others does not factor into his considerations. Instead he considers his own position, and there irresponsible causes him less work (fewer arguments with the ERG (i.e. the Tory parliamentary party now)).
    It might be possible to fob them off with a grand victory on fish, but it’s not clear that that would be enough.

    1. I agree.

      But can anyone – can David – explain the supine stance of the entire frontline so-called quality media – ie the FT, the BBC, the Guardian, Channel 4 news, maybe even on occasion The Times – in failing to make daily page headlines (as opposed to just publishing critical articles) of the catastrophe that no deal will bring?

      I am genuinely at a loss to explain this abdication of responsibility.

  5. My thoughts were who is Johnson most afraid of upsetting? The ERG types and hard liners, or ordinary people in the country, who are already fed up with Covid and can’t take much more.

    I think he’s more likely to pander to the ERG because this is a short term measure. Destroying the country is not likely to bother him because he will be long gone.

  6. Irresponsible? Unprincipled?

    “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else” – Johnson’s housemaster at Eton

  7. May be there is a third option?

    Buridan’s ass.

    Buridan’s ass refers to a hypothetical situation wherein a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it dies of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision between the hay and water. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.

    Substituting Johnson for the ass is not difficult to do. The two identical piles of hay are the two equally attractive (or unattractive) roads leading away from the fork.

    Johnson’s dithering would not, in this scenario, result in him starving to death, but turning his back on the fork in the road to seek an audience with the Queen.

    He has been Prime Minister. He has ticked the box. He is no Michael Heseltine who equally desired to tick the box and be PM. However, Heseltine wanted to do things, to try and improve our society and economy. Johnson has never had much ambition beyond satisfying his own cravings.

    There is no, never has been or ever will be a Johnsonian Grand Plan. Levelling up is a vacuous slogan meaning all things to all and is thus is of no practical value to any.

    The third option for Johnson may be resignation. No Prime Minister in the history of that office has gone into the lobbies of the House of Commons to beg his own backbenchers to back a Government motion, like Johnson did last week over the new Covid regulations.

    Johnson won a General Election and became, again, Prime Minister. That was the pinnacle of his success. It has all been downhill since and years of Prime Ministerial tedium and drudgery stretch out before him.

    It is never going to be fun and provide much opportunity for jolly japes. And there will be next to no opportunity for Johnson to indulge in his particular take on droit de seigneur, like he did at The Spectator.

    “To govern is to choose.”

    “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.”

    How long before Johnson fully gives “the impression of being in office, but not in power” ?

    I move the third way.

    “About face! Quick march! No slouching there!”

        1. Hmmmm… I’m not sure this works. If you are equally hungry and thirsty you will always go for the water as we can survive without food for much longer than we can survive without water. I’m not sure about donkeys! The two bales of hay works better therefore.

          You are quite right about Michael Heseltine. He didn’t just want to be prime minister for the kudos. He wanted to do stuff, make people’s lives better. Whether he would’ve been a better prime minister than John Major I’m not sure but at least he wanted the highest office of state for decent and noble reasons. Johnson only wanted it for the status. He never really wanted to do anything with the job.

        2. Slightly off piste for me (sorry, David, but this was diverting) – it seems the 14th century philosopher Jean Buridan used the name “Brunellus” (i.e. “browny”; compare the fabled “Blackacre” in real estate textbooks) when he need a name for a horse or donkey in his logical arguments. For example

          I’m not aware that the donkey-unable-to-choose-that-died was named by Buridan, but if it was he would probably have called it Brunellus .

          An ass called Brunellus also appears in the “Speculum Stultorum” (mirror of fools) of the 12th century poet Nigel de Longchamps. I wonder if Buridan knew it. Some of his logical syllogisms seem inspired by it. See the cute marginal illustration here, of the ass with a mitre, because the foolish ass wants to become a bishop:

          Buridan was (more or less) a contemporary of William of Ockham.

          Skipping a few centuries, that brings us to the confused Raston Warrior Robot in “The Eight Doctors” (it also appears in “The Five Doctors”).

          A discussion of this nature would be meat and drink to Boris Johnson, although he’d probably prefer to recall the similar anecdote from Aristotle (a man, just as hungry as thirsty, being placed between food and drink, must remain where he is and starve).

          In reality, as we will find today, a man caught in his kind of insoluble dilemma will make up a reason to prefer one outcome rather than the other. It is a trolley problem writ large – remain impassive and allow the country to crash and take his career with it, or flip the switch and divert the careening carriage in a different but potentially just as personally problematic direction. Action or inaction?

          1. One almost feels sympathy for the Cybermen in “The Five Doctors” as the Raston Warrior Robot slices and dices them.

            There was a Keep Britain Tidy event at the Central Library here in Birmingham in the 1980s.

            Promoting the campaign were, amongst others, the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), The Master (Anthony Ainley) and an assortment of Daleks and Cybermen.

            The Daleks were not frightening. You could clearly see the operator through the metal gauze underneath the dome.

            But when the first Cyberman I saw lumbered around the corner in front of me … that was unnerving for a split second or so, because the chap in the suit was wholly enveloped in it.

            I first came across Buridan’s Ass in the “Eight Doctors”.

            An ass with aspirations to become a bishop? Inspired by stories of the elevation of Incitatus to the priesthood, perhaps?

            Now that would be up Johnson’s Via Appia!

  8. I’d say he won’t be able to choose between these two alternatives, the man is a ditherer. I think it will come down to what the President of the European Commission says. If Ursula gives him enough wiggle room, he’ll declare a deal; if not, he will blame “no deal” on the “dissapointing intransigence of our European friends and partners”. Nothing, personal or professional, is ever Boris’s fault or failing, after all.

    Gove’s bleating this morning is designed to suggest that no outcome is expected from the talks other than the chance to continue (something our side has been at pains to suggest it doesn’t want to do (final, final deadline this Thursday, wasn’t it?)) and the Brexit Taleban have been claiming for ages now that an “Australia” style deal is an acceptable (if not good) outcome. I think Johnson has painted himself into a corner and rather than turn at this crossroads, he’ll smack staright into the barrier and hope to blame it on the navigator (there isn’t one!).

    1. That would be the Australia eager to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the EU?

      We have heard a lot about Australia in the context of Brexit over the years. Farage, ‘concerned’ about how our immigration policy external to the EU discriminated against non whites was a big fan of the ‘fair’ Australian system.

      I discovered one day that I might try out the Australian system on the official website.

      I made two test applications, using exactly the same personal information, except for one specific change between the two. In one I was a doctor from the USA and in the other from India.

      My US persona would be welcomed with open arms as a medical man.

      My Indian persona might, for example, undertake the work of a deckhand on a visiting yacht in an Australian harbour or undertake the work of a servant at the Indian Embassy. On no account, would I be allowed to practise medicine in Australia.

      Of course, the EU has never had a say in how we approached immigration outside of the EU.

    1. I would not bank on it.

      It was after all, Symonds who, about 18 months ago brokered a meeting with Johnson and Cummings that brought the Dom right into the heart of Government.

      And Symonds has no problem with the web of croneyism being spun by Johnson and his chums, because she is one of the weavers.

  9. It is important that we do not sink to the level of the Gangster in No 10. I am not sure whether making an unfair allegation is quite that – there was a famous exchange between the young Reggie Maudling and Churchill after the war during teh drafting of a speech:

    MAUDLING “You cannot say that about Mr Attlee – it is unfair”

    CHURCHILL: “Young man if you think I reached my present position of pre-eminence in public life by being fair about my opponents you have much to learn about our political system”

    MAUDLING “I mean people will think it unfair”

    CHRCHILL “Ah, Maudling, that is very different. Cross it out at once.”

    So we should not be too squeamish

    But the allegation that writing out the case for leaving the EU and the case against is unfair because in making a choice it is a good idea to consider the arguments for and against – see Aquinas, Summa Theologica in particular, for an example of doing both and reaching a conclusion; also recommended by Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercise.

    A charge that is more likely to stick is that the Gangster did not consider the arguments from the perspective of the common good but just his own self-advancement.

  10. Your posts are most welcome and, as always thought provoking.

    Until l listened to PMQ’s l thought that Johnson wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to go with a No Deal. But there was that bravado/ l Don care/ l’m Boris Johnson with an 80 seat majority tone to his voice and we can’t stop him. That, l feel, had been missing of late.

    Most people would think people with principles make good decisions for the many. Alas, again l feel, Johnson’s principles are based upon what will be good for him.

    I’m going to throw my bonnet into the ring and say Johson’s is going to behave like Wurzel Gummidge and put his No Deal Head on.

  11. …..which he will then spin as “We’ve got a deal, an Australia type deal.” and the mainstream media will duly fall into line.

  12. Sir Ivan Rogers said it a few times of late that the UK would likely need to languish outside the EU for a while before the political consensus among the electorate matures for going back to negotiate access to the EU for services (in exchange for the freedom of movement). Same may apply now for tariffs, though the period before people panic would likely be shorter.

  13. Love the typo ‘.. “hiss” political supporters..’ so apt!

    I think Boris Johnson is about to fully unravel leaving the U.K. damaged perhaps beyond repair. It is just unbelievable.

    David, I have been following you for some years now; thank you so much for explaining in clear and simple terms areas of law and policy I would have otherwise struggled to engage with.
    Just marvellous!

  14. David

    Re: “The fork in the road to Brexit ……………..”

    Doesn’t this binary choice, about which you are correct, come down to: Do I do what I know is best for the nation? Or do I do what I said was best for the nation, even though I knew it was not?”

  15. If you accept the premise, as many do, that Johnson’s only goal is self-gratification, then he will go for “no deal” simply because that will leave him in power for longer than the alternative.

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