Will the public stop caring about Brexit?

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Yesterday saw Anand Menon warning about “faltering interest” in Brexit, and Lisa James and Meg Russell ask whether Parliament was about to “get boring”.

Politics isn’t organised for our entertainment, and dramatic politics it not always good politics. But there is a risk that, as Brexit ends its first stage, the public will stop caring about the issue. How likely is this?

Let’s start with what we know.

The public (currently) thinks that Brexit is important, and it has done so for a long time. Ipsos MORI have, for the past forty years, asked respondents to name important issues facing Britain. On average since the referendum 51% of respondents have named Brexit as an important issue.

Brexit was the most frequently named issue in the 18 months preceding the last election.

At the time of the first ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement (January 2019), more people named Brexit as an important issue than named the economy as an important issue during the global financial crisis.

Very few issues have been this important. Only unemployment (1992 to 1994; 1983 – 1988) and inflation (1974 – 1979) have been more commonly mentioned, for longer, than Brexit.

Since IPSOS Mori started collecting information on important issues in 1974, only 13 issues have held the ‘top spot’. The vast majority of these issues – crime, the economy, education, health – are chronically important, rather than being episodically important.

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What’s more, very few issues have become the most commonly named issue before then going away. The clearest case is foot and mouth, which was the most important issue at the time of the 2001 outbreak, and has never since been as important.

Amongst issues which have been important over a long period of time, only inflation and the power of trade unions have ever really gone away (though this is much more true of trade unions than inflation).

There is little sign, at the moment, that the issue of Brexit will go away.

It is true that the most recent issue tracker from Ipsos Mori showed Brexit as the second most important issue, behind the NHS, but this was also true for much of 2017. In the medium term, whether Brexit ‘goes away’ as an issue for the public will depend on three (related) things: issue framing, elite cues, and events.

For a long time before 2016, the EU was not an important issue. Immigration, however, was. As the issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU grew in importance, the issue of immigration declined.

These two issues became linked in the public mind as a result of the way the issue of Brexit was framed.

It’s possible that the reverse process might occur, and the issue of Brexit might be dismantled into its constituent parts. Maybe in 18 months, we’ll view trade and immigration as two separate issues, each with their own boosters.

Reframing Brexit in this way would require a skillful permanent campaign which the government could, if it wished, carry out. But what do the government and the opposition want?

In part, people judge issues to be nationally important because they see and hear politicians talking about them in the news – something we refer to as ‘elite cueing’. But now that a majority has been won and Brexit has been ‘got done’, it is not clear that the government will wish to talk about Brexit very much.

After all, protracted national conversations risk revealing that Brexit is a decade-long process, rather than an event.

The calculation on the Labour side is less clear.

On one hand, the party would far rather do what every opposition party does, and try to steer the conversation on to issues like health – where it enjoys ‘issue ownership’.

On the other hand, if the next phase of Brexit moves from a positional issue (“Should we Brexit?”) to a valence issue (“is Brexit being pursued well or badly?”), then there could well be mileage for the chief opposition party – particularly if led by a former Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU – in trying to embarrass the government over its handling of future relationship negotiations.

Which bring us to event. Frames and elite cues channel public judgements of importance, but events themselves are fundamental.

Some events are external to the future relationship talks: it’s simultaneously trite and depressing to note that Brexit could be pushed off the public agenda by a serious terrorist attack or a worsening of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Brexit process itself, however, also creates events. Brexit peaked in importance at the time of meaningful votes, an event written in to the parliamentary timetable by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

The new government has substantially reduced Parliament’s role in future negotiation talks, and so there are fewer domestic events which might propel Brexit up the agenda.

But there will be flashpoints in October and December this year, as the details of the trade agreement emerge. Depending on the agreement struck, additional flashpoints may emerge in parliaments beyond the UK.

It is easy to imagine Brexit disappearing as an object of public concern now only to reappear with the November frost.

So overall, public interest in Brexit is likely to fall away over the next couple of months, but it will not disappear.

The level of public interest will depend on what the government and the opposition do and say, but no matter what happens Brexit is likely to increase in importance towards the end of the year.

This does not necessarily mean it will be the most important issue for many people, but it will still be amongst the most important issues.

Only if the government were successfully to conclude future relationship talks by the end of the year – something which is very unlikely – would the issue slip down the agenda.

The disappearance of Brexit from the public agenda like this would be comparable to the shifts on inflation and trade unions seen during the early years of the Thatcher government.

By Chris Hanretty, Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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