Is the UK’s 2019 election a single-issue campaign centered on Brexit? Some newspapers clearly think so, with the Daily Mail and the Sun having already branded it the “Brexmas Election”. These declarations reflect a strong desire to see the Conservatives triumph and for Boris Johnson to enact his core promise to “Get Brexit Done”.
And – for very different reasons – Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats have been similarly enthusiastic about ensuring that Brexit is a major campaign issue. But Labour appears keen for the election to be about a whole range of subjects – most notably the state of the economy, the future of the National Health Service (NHS) and the increasingly urgent issue of the environment and climate change.
A simple way to measure this is to analyse the tweets produced by the main party leaders and parties in the first two weeks of formal campaigning. Of tweets originating from the Conservative party over this period, 38% contain the word “Brexit”. This figure was only slightly lower – 37% – for the Lib Dems. The two parties even beat the Brexit Party at 28%. Meanwhile – and tellingly – barely 1% of Labour tweets mentioned “Brexit” during the same period.
Subsequently, when Sky News branded its campaign coverage “The Brexit Election”, it was Labour that felt strongly enough to challenge the channel’s right to make this claim on the grounds that it frames the election narrowly and on Johnson’s terms.
Brexit is an important background contextual factor (and) what happens next in terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU will be determined by the election result.
Regardless of the merits of the case, the related controversy underscores the centrality of the question over the extent to which this is and will be the Brexit campaign.
What a difference two years makes
Loughborough University has been monitoring the issues and personalities who have gained most prominence during the 2019 General Election. The team did the same during the previous campaign two and a half years ago after the then prime minister Theresa May called a snap election to resolve the impasse over Europe.
Her calculation that her lead in the polls would guarantee her a comfortable victory proved misplaced, as did her belief that Brexit would dominate news coverage of the campaign.
So how different has this election campaign been to 2017 – at least to date? Figure 1, below, compares the weekly prominence of Brexit in national media coverage across the entire 2017 campaign and the first two weeks of this election. The 2017 results reveal how quickly and significantly media attention shifted away from Brexit. This was due, variously, to the Conservative Party’s backtracking over its social care proposals (widely denounced as a “dementia tax”), as well as an effective Labour manifesto launch and the traumatic disruption caused by major terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.
The 2019 results show that Brexit was marginally more prominent at the start of the campaign than in 2017, but its newsworthiness has also diminished into the second week, albeit not as dramatically as in the previous election.
What explains this change? High-profile stories relating to Prince Andrew, the potential impeachment of Donald Trump and the launch of the new series of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here have cumulatively colonised news space and ensured the campaign has not attracted the same amount of news coverage it received in the previous week. Our results show a 6% reduction in TV news coverage of the election in week two and a 16% fall in press coverage.
Within this reduced output, other issues have pushed their way to the fore (see Table 1 below). Interest in the general dynamics and uncertainty of the campaign (represented in the table as electoral process) remained prominent, but less so than in the first week. Meanwhile, attention to the economy and trade increased and coverage of healthcare and taxation issues both increased markedly.
Shaping the agenda
Will Brexit recover its news value in the coming weeks of the campaign? From the opening moments of the televised leadership debate on Tuesday, the prime minister focused on extolling the virtue of his “oven-ready Brexit deal” and challenging Corbyn on his policy and personal stance on withdrawal from the EU. The Labour leader, in contrast, seemed equally determined to widen the range of issues under discussion.
This kind of media event has long been recognised as a stimulus for further coverage, and on this occasion 53% of all election items produced in the day after the debate made some reference to it. It will be interesting to see which leader proves most effective in shaping the developing news agenda.
What is clear from our analysis is that it is Johnson’s withdrawal agreement that is dominating the media discussion of Brexit alternatives (see Figure 2).
The Conservatives’ policy has so far received twice as much coverage as Remain, the next most prominent Brexit alternative and the one advanced by the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s primary policy of a second referendum is only the third most prominent option – slightly ahead of Hard/No Deal Brexit discussion (the Brexit Party’s stance), while Labour’s preferred softer Brexit strategy is the least discussed of all options.
In this respect, at least, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are setting the electoral agenda.
Our thanks to Professor Cristian Vaccari of Loughborough University for the twitter analysis.
David Deacon has received funding from the ESRC, Leverhulme Trust, British Academy, BBC Trust and the Electoral Commission.
Dominic Wring has received funding from the ESRC, Leverhulme Trust, British Academy, BBC Trust and the Electoral Commission.
David Smith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.