Brexit overpowers big differences between the main parties on key issues

While politicians talk about the NHS, the environment, defence, education and other major challenges facing the UK in the build-up to the General Election, Brexit looms large.

It overshadows every issue facing the UK. It’s likely to have the decisive impact on the outcome of the General Election, because Brexit remains firmly the top concern in the public’s mind, with 65% of people saying it is the biggest issue facing Britain, according to the latest Issues Index from Ipsos Mori.

Like it or not, this is the Brexit election. Brexit will be the key factor in determining who resides in 10 Downing Street and sets the agenda across all policy areas. Whichever candidate is most convincing on Brexit is likely to shape how Britain will address our biggest challenges, including the rising tide of obesity.

So, back to the question of the nation’s waistline

What are the attitudes of the key election protagonists, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, toward obesity? One of these men is likely to have a significant influence on the UK’s obesity policy.

According to Corbyn, obesity, particularly childhood obesity

“Is a class issue. It’s the poorest children who eat the worst food, and have the greatest problems of obesity as a result of it.”

Johnson too brings class into the obesity discussion in his opposition to “nanny state” measures:

“The recent proposal for a tax on milkshakes seems to be to clobber those who can least afford it. If we want people to lose weight and live healthier lifestyles, we should encourage people to walk, cycle and generally do more exercise. Rather than just taxing people more, we should look at how effective the so-called ‘sin taxes’ really are, and if they actually change behaviour.”

The current Prime Minister has vowed to launch an inquiry into the efficacy of the Sugar Levy and whether it is reducing obesity. The Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto has pledged to “extend the sugar tax to milk drinks” to respond to the country’s “epidemic in food-related ill health”.

How are the attitudes of Conservative and Labour MPs towards the Sugar Tax changing?

Labour MPs are much more in favour of the Sugar Tax than Conservative MPs and their appetite for strengthening regulation in this area has doubled since 2016 when the sugar levy became law. Labour MPs’ support for increasing the sugar levy has shot up from 29% to 59%. For extending the sugar levy to other products that are high in sugar, Labour support has rocketed from 29% to 72%.

On the other hand, Conservative MPs’ appetite for increasing the sugar levy has hardly changed since 2016 with over two-thirds against increasing it. While more Conservative MPs support extending the levy to other products than in 2016, over half (55%) are against it.


How close are Conservative and Labour MPs’ views to those of the wider UK population?

Labour MPs tend to view a range of initiatives to help tackle obesity, including increasing and extending the Sugar Tax, as acceptable while Conservative MPs tend to view them as unacceptable. The acceptability of these initiatives to the UK population tends to sit in between the Labour and Conservative extremes.

How acceptable would it be to introduce…to tackle obesity? [% Acceptable – Unacceptable]

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming Christmas Election, it appears that policies on UK obesity may well become more extreme than the public would like. A Corbyn administration with Labour MPs’ surging support for more intervention on obesity would be primed to go beyond the public’s comfort zone in regulating obesity. On the other hand, a Johnson government may not aim high enough to satisfy growing public concern about obesity.

So, what about our waistlines?

While Brexit is likely to determine whether Johnson or Corbyn has the whip hand in setting the agenda on the obesity policy, it’s still unclear whether their resulting policies will reduce people’s weight. Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so the proof of the policy is in the delivery. We’ll have to wait for some time to see how the outcome of the General Election affects our waistlines.

Grace Birrell

Grace is a Research Assistant on the Corporate Reputation team, having joined Populus in September 2019 after completing her Master's degree in Literature.