The prime minister is pushing for an election. If he gets his way, all the indications suggest that he will frame his campaign around a “people vs parliament” narrative. For such a campaign to have the best chance of succeeding, Boris Johnson needs large numbers of the public, and Brexit supporters in particular, to register what he is trying to do with Brexit and how the Commons is responding.
And according to the latest in Populus’s series of research which tracks public attention paid to news stories, that is exactly what’s happening.
October has provided us with perhaps more twists and turns in the Brexit saga than any other month in the past three years.
In the first week of October, Mr Johnson proclaimed at the Conservative Party conference that he would secure a new and better deal with the EU. Around half of the public were paying attention: 48 per cent said that Brexit was their most noticed story of the week. So far so good.
That was quickly followed in week two by reports that, after talks between Mr Johnson and Angela Merkel, a deal was “essentially impossible”. The public were again following this in reasonably large numbers, with a similar proportion (50 per cent) recalling Brexit as their top story.
But that widely reported quote about the likelihood of a deal emanated from No 10 and may well have been designed to lower expectations.
It allowed Mr Johnson to appear victorious against all odds when, in week three of October, it was announced that the government and the EU had managed to strike that impossible deal, and the share of attention paid towards Brexit shot up accordingly, to 61 per cent. It is when the public anticipate some kind of resolution that they really take notice.
But it was the last week of the month that delivered the most striking developments. Mr Johnson’s meaningful vote was scuppered by parliament’s support for the Letwin amendment, essentially forcing the prime minister to ask for an extension. The share of attention paid to Brexit reached a huge 66 per cent.
Was the Letwin amendment a setback to delivering Brexit? Yes. But from the maze of developments, negotiations, bills and plots, the thing that has emerged as far as voters are concerned is the idea that Mr Johnson is doing all he can to deliver Brexit where others failed, while parliament is aiming to obstruct it. What people think of this depends on their views about Brexit, but it nevertheless looks a lot like the narrative that Mr Johnson wants to be able to tell should it come to a general election.
Indeed, support for the Conservative Party in opinion polls has increased by two or three points since the start of October. With a large proportion of voters following the action, and uncertainty about what happens next, the potential for further volatility in party support is high.
None of this means that a “people vs parliament” campaign would actually work, but the foundation on which to build one has at least been laid.
Populus polls a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults every week, and asked what news story they had noticed the most. The question is open-ended and participants can name any story.
Will Clothier is a Consultant at Populus
Will is a Consultant at Populus where he has delivered stakeholder research projects for household names across a range of sectors including sport, telecoms, culture, food, and leisure – advising clients on the views of politicians, journalists, and industry leaders. Recent stakeholder clients include the Premier League and BT.He researches public opinion quantitatively and qualitatively for political organisations, government departments, and businesses. Recently he has analysed public attitudes towards ‘populist’ economic policies post-Brexit, and the political attitudes of voters in different parts of the country. He works within Populus’s Reputation and Strategy division, having joined the company as a Research Executive. He graduated from Durham University with a first class degree in English Literature and holds the Market Research Society Advanced Certificate with a double merit.