It would have been easy in months gone by to overstate how engaged voters have been with the Brexit negotiation process. Divisive though the referendum was, most people in the real world have not been paying close attention to the intricate business of how that vote is enacted.
Now though, the spotlight on the Prime Minister is getting brighter. Every week, Populus polls 2,000 British adults to find out which news story, political or otherwise, the public have paid most attention to during the course of that week. And in September, Brexit topped the poll for four weeks running for the first time since the referendum itself.
Indeed, stories surrounding the Salzburg summit helped Brexit to its greatest individual share of attention of the year, with around four in ten members of the public identifying it as their top story for both of the last two weeks in September.
This level of political interest is rare. Even just a few months ago, Brexit was seldom top of mind for more than one in ten, and those people rarely focussed on specific details. Now with only six months to go until the deadline, respondents refer to the Prime Minister “pushing Chequers as the only viable option”, “the increased likelihood of no deal”, and “humiliation in Salzburg”.
By comparison, our polling this month suggests that the Labour Party antisemitism row seems to have captivated a much smaller audience. Despite front pages dominated by the Labour Party’s eventual adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition just before our fieldwork began, only 6% of respondents mentioned it as the story they had paid most attention to in the first week of September.
For context, exactly the same share of attention was captured that week by a controversy of far lesser importance: Celebrity Big Brother contestant Roxanne Pallett feigning injury at the hands of a fellow soap actor in an incident known as ‘punch gate’.
The Labour leadership may be relieved by these findings – with the antisemitism row ostensibly concluded just in time to depart for conference season – but unlike Roxanne Pallett the Party has not necessarily left the House unharmed. A sufficiently prolonged series of accusations perceived as mishandled can, over time, have the potential to influence the opinion of voters beyond the few who are most engaged.
Right now though the Labour Party is not the focus of the nation’s interest. As the Conservative Party’s conference plays out to an audience fraught with division, it and its handling of Brexit is increasingly centre stage not just for the politicos and journalists in Birmingham, but for the ordinary people of Britain.
Populus interviewed a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults aged 18 and over each week, and asked what news story they had noticed the most. The question was open-ended and participants could name any story.