May’s European Elections saw millions of Britons express their apparent disapproval of the main parties’ handling of Brexit by voting for parties – such as the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats and Green Party – with seemingly clearer positions on Brexit on way or the other. The results were particularly poor for the Conservatives, who did not come top in any local authority area and whose vote share fell to just 9.1% across Great Britain, down from 23.9% in 2014. An examination of how Brexit has captured public attention in the six months leading up to April’s Brexit delay offers some insight as to why the main parties – but particularly the Conservatives – did so poorly.

Populus polls 2,000 British adults each week to find out which news story, political or otherwise, the public has aid most attention to during the course of that week.

Brexit leads most noticed news story across the UK

In the six months leading up to April’s Brexit delay, Brexit news stories cut through with more of the public and for longer than during any period since the referendum. Perhaps more importantly, Brexit news stories were often the story people had paid most attention to throughout that period.

Brexit was the most noticed story for 40% or more of the British population on only two occasions between the referendum in June 2016 and September 2018. In the subsequent six months leading up to April of this year Brexit was the most noticed story for 40% or more of the British population in no fewer than 16 weeks, including three weeks in which it was the most noticed story for more than 80% of the British public. The stories that have driven this sustained increase in attention attest to a sense of broken promises, contradictions and the failure to reach a workable Brexit deal.

Brexit by story ranking

The stalls and stutters on the road out of the EU have gained most attention in the six months leading up to April’s announcement that Brexit would be delayed until October. In that period, the Chequers plan was agreed and met with a series of resignations (becoming the most noticed news story for 31% of the public in the week ending 21 July 2018) before being rejected by the EU (39%, 28 September 2018). The Prime Minister then agreed a draft deal with the EU (68%, 23 November 2018), announced a vote on that deal in the House of Commons (72%, 30 November 2018), delayed the vote of that deal (63%, 14 December 2018) then lost the vote on that deal three times (86%, 18 January 2019; 78%, 15 March 2019; 85%, 29 March 2019); and the original exit date has come (85%, 29 March 2019), been delayed (71%, 22 March 2019) and then been delayed again (74%, 12 April 2019).

By comparison, between June 2016 and September 2018, Brexit commanded the public’s attention on just two occasions, and both were symbols of progress. The triggering of Article 50 (55%, 24 March 2017) and the draft agreement with the EU (41%, 15 December 2017) were clear steps towards a future outside of the European Union.

The six months between October 2018 and April 2019 saw a single news story – Brexit – dominate the news cycle. In that time, the narrative presented to the public was one of continuous reversals, defeats and U-turns in the Government’s EU policy, often against the backdrop of in-fighting within the Government itself. The high level of public focus on this single, unresolved, issue provides valuable context to an election that saw the Brexit Party, Liberal Democrats and Greens all surge at the expense of the two main parties but particularly the incumbent Conservatives.