public house bargain (n.) a poor or unprofitable bargain; a questionable deal

For the past several weeks, it has seemed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approach to the on-going Brexit negotiations has been to keep his cards close to his chest, and then at the very last moment reveal that he wasn’t ever actually holding any cards at all. 

Throughout that time, Britain has looked dangerously and ever more inexorably driven towards a disastrous No Deal exit—both by default and by Number 10’s design. Johnson and his team have pulled every time-consuming trick in the political playbook to make an automatic No Deal exit on October 31 a more likely prospect, all the while rigorously claiming that they have been busy backstage, developing a secret new withdrawal arrangement (so secret they can’t actually tell you what it contains). Alas, all these adamant claims of laborious, backroom deal-brokering have been quickly and repeatedly countered by a clock-watching, finger-drumming EU. 

English Dialect Dictionary moreover helpfully points out that such deals were also once known as cheat-the-publics. Make of that what you will…  

But then, midway through this week, something finally broke the deadlock. Johnson’s team tossed a handful of scrawled ideas onto the Brexit negotiating table, and suddenly a new solution to all our self-imposed ills was on offer. 


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Gone was the controversial Irish backstop arrangement. In its place, a new procedure would uniquely keep Northern Ireland aligned with a clutch of EU single market rules for the foreseeable future; impose a series of “decentralized” customs checks, carried out at checkpoints not actually located on the Irish border, on trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic; establish a regulatory border down the Irish Sea; and give the Northern Irish assembly the opportunity to decide whether or not to maintain the EU’s legislative trade rules every four years. 

Number 10 proudly touted the plan as a workable compromise (albeit while quietly readying themselves to shift the blame for its imminent failure onto the “crazy” EU). In reality, the only thing this new arrangement apparently risked “compromising” was Northern Ireland. 

Johnson’s plan was championed by the Conservatives and the DUP, but roundly dismissed as unworkable by just about everyone else—including the two main players in this late stage of negotiations, namely the Republic of Ireland and the EU itself. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the new plan “falls short in a number of aspects,” while European Parliament Brexit Co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt was quick to respond to the new approach by tweeting that Mr Johnson’s plan suffered from a “lack of detail,” contained several “fundamental problems,” and was ultimately simply “not operational.” 

“This is repackaging old, bad ideas,” he brusquely concluded. He might just as well have called it a public house bargain.

This week’s Word of the Week, a public house bargain is a loose, questionable, or otherwise unprofitable deal—the kind of arrangement that might, quite literally, be cooked up in a pub over a few pints, or that might only be entered into under the judgement-inhibiting influence of a round or two down the local. Apparently dating from the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the English Dialect Dictionary moreover helpfully points out that such deals were also once known as cheat-the-publics. Make of that what you will…  

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