The Guardian view on Johnson’s choice: rule of law or misrule | Editorial

In light of everything that was known about Boris Johnson before becoming prime minister, his inability to resolve Brexit once installed in Downing Street was to be expected. Only the manner of his failure was unpredictable. Mr Johnson was lazy in his assessment of the EU negotiating position, arrogant in his handling of parliament, and complacent about the strength of opposition there. But perhaps the prime minister’s most damaging error has been to confuse campaign rhetoric with the reality of government.

Mr Johnson believed the arguments he used to persuade Tory members to elect him as their leader. He said that Theresa May’s deal was obsolete and that a better deal would be available if the UK listened less to Brussels. That proposition has now been tested and found to be false. Mr Johnson’s alternative Brexit proposals have been rejected. It is not clear whether Downing Street intended its plan to be the starting point for a serious negotiation or just a provocation – designed for rejection ahead of a campaign vilifying foreigners as the obstacles to Brexit liberation.

The more cynical view is supported by an anonymous briefing, sourced to No 10, narrating a telephone call in which Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, appeared to demand that Mr Johnson surrender Northern Ireland to Brussels. No one who is familiar with Mrs Merkel’s style of diplomacy imagines that Downing Street accurately reflected what was said. The purpose of such a briefing was to make compromise less likely and stoke international enmity for tactical domestic advantage. It is unclear whether Mr Johnson authorised that message but it hardly matters. He is responsible for his messengers and they are sabotaging the UK’s relationship with vital European allies.

A root of the problem is the recruitment to Downing Street of leading figures from the Vote Leave referendum campaign, including its executive strategist Dominic Cummings. That clique is not respectful of Conservative traditions and, in the case of Mr Cummings, despises any sentimental attachment to established modes of governance. That ethos is incompatible with the side of Downing Street that wants to be an orthodox Tory administration, engaging with parliament, maintaining relations with neighbouring states and preserving a semblance of sober statecraft. Those ambitions lead some of the prime minister’s staff and cabinet colleagues to seek a Brexit deal.

As a leadership candidate, Mr Johnson did not foresee a clash between the Vote Leave model of relentless campaigning aggression and the day-to-day conduct of grown-up government. He now faces a choice, crystallised in the question of whether to submit to the Benn Act, which requires that the government seek an article 50 extension in the absence of a deal. A responsible prime minister would obey the law (or resign if he felt unable to do so). But Downing Street has let it be known that other notions are under consideration. There are hints at unidentified ruses, suggesting the law might not be so legally binding.

Even if the courts compelled compliance, forcing their hand would allow Mr Johnson to portray himself as a Brexit martyr. He might then be in a stronger position to run as the tribune of the people, defying a Europhile establishment in parliament and the judiciary. That is the stuff of authoritarian subversion, and should not appear in the repertoire of democratic politicians.

Mr Johnson is not yet at that point, but it is within sight. The prospects of agreement with the EU look remote. The decision to hold an emergency Saturday session of parliament on 19 October, an expedient usually limited to wartime, looks designed to aggravate, not calm, the sense of national emergency. But the prime minister’s choice reveals a more profound conflict at the heart of Downing Street. He has chosen a strategy for fighting an election that requires behaviour unsuitable for running a government. He can be a wrecking candidate, attacking diplomatic, constitutional and democratic norms, or he can be a serious head of government. He can submit to the rule of law or he can pose as a lord of misrule. He cannot do both.