Brexit utterly dominated public attention throughout the year according to weekly polling by Populus. Understanding which developments cut through and which did not can help us to explain how Johnson steered the Conservatives to their biggest electoral victory since 1987.
It is telling that the two most noticed news stories of the year both centred on parliament’s inability to deliver Brexit: the House of Commons voting down Theresa May’s exit deal in January and the first Brexit deadline passing in late March. They were identified as respondents’ most noticed stories in the unprompted survey by 86 per cent and 85 per cent respectively.
Those are huge numbers for any kind of news event. By comparison, the biggest stories of the next couple of months did not come close: the Notre-Dame fire (59 per cent), the bombings in Sri Lanka (47 per cent), the birth of Archie Mountbatten-Windsor (46 per cent), and the state visit of President Trump (46 per cent) all attracted a much lower share of recalled attention in their respective weeks.
Number 10 used this situation to its electoral advantage under Boris Johnson. Dominic Cummings’ pursuit of risky and provocative parliamentary manouevres was derided by some at the time, but that strategy was designed with one eye on a general election and an appreciation of how the public – and Leavers in particular – were following parliament’s activity.
In August, Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament relegated the announcement of a Remain alliance of opposition MPs to yesterday’s news.
In September, the prorogation affair and Johnson’s battle with the courts (recalled by at least seven in ten throughout the month when combined with Brexit) completely overshadowed the Labour party conference (less than 1 per cent) and any attempt with it to shift the conversation towards the NHS, austerity, or inequality.
In October, Johnson was set back in the Commons again by the Letwin amendment, but the thing that broke through as far as many voters were concerned (66 per cent were tuned in) was that the prime minister was doing all he could to get Brexit done while parliament tried to obstruct it.
So when it came to the election campaign in November and December, a clear and simple slogan built on these foundations cut through in the Leave-voting areas it needed to, and Jeremy Corbyn ran out of time to change a narrative that had been in the making all year.
As for other big stories of 2019, the now disbanded Independent Group for Change made a short-lived splash with a share of 19 per cent of public attention in February, but were overshadowed by the case of Shamima Begum, the British-born Islamic State teenager who wished to return to the UK (39 per cent), while Prince Andrew’s November interview with Emily Maitlis took attention away from the general election with a share of 27 per cent.
What about 2020? Some of Johnson’s critics suggest that voters will come to see the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan as misleading – that it will soon be unraveled by drawn-out and difficult trade negotiations. While Brexit is bound to shape the backdrop of politics for decades, things like esoteric trade negotiations spanning years do not generally command high levels of public attention in and of themselves. Once the Brexit saga enters its epilogue it is possible that the focus of the media and the public will start to go elsewhere.
Populus interviews a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults aged 18 and over each week, and asks what news story they had noticed the most. The question is open-ended and respondents 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.