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27 April 2021

Will these stories about Boris Johnson “cut through”? It’s the wrong question to ask

It should be remembered that “cutting through” is not the only way a party can suffer electoral damage.

By Stephen Bush

The old traditions are dying out: St George’s Day last Friday (23 April) came and went without Labour reannouncing its commitment to create four new UK-wide bank holidays: one for each patron saint of all four kingdoms.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, the party announced the policy at least 16 times: twice in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, once in a big speech on England by Corbyn himself, and on most, but not all, of the saints’ days under Corbyn’s leadership. (There may be other times I have overlooked or missed.)

That was a sensible reflection on a difficult truth about all politics, but opposition politics in particular: most of the time, no one is listening to you. And even the ones who are often don’t remember a thing you said. Not only did Corbyn’s Labour reannounce this policy at least 16 times, but some commentators would criticise the policy as if it were brand new on multiple occasions. (I am yet to find someone who did so all 16 times, unfortunately.)

That’s why I think the focus on whether or not the stories about Boris Johnson’s disputed comments about a third lockdown, as well as the renovation of the Downing Street flat and who paid for it, have “cut through” is the wrong one. Most political stories don’t “cut through” and one reason opposition parties repeat themselves is that the only chance of getting “cut through” is to bore themselves sick. That reality is partly why Keir Starmer’s Labour opted not to reannounce the bank holiday policy this St George’s Day, but instead maintained its focus on “Tory sleaze”.

If you talk long enough, and with enough discipline, your chances of being heard are greater. In addition, some stories that do achieve the much-desired “cut through” fade away, while other stories that don’t can, over time, do real damage to governments and their political projects.

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For example, the accession of the 2004 European Union member states has, without doubt, caused political difficulties for Labour in general and for pro-Europeans in particular: but there was no grand “cut through” or a sudden moment when people started to follow the story closely. It just became harder and harder for the party to keep its electoral coalition together and for pro-Europeans to maintain consent for British membership of the EU.

A better question, I think, is: is this risky territory for the party in question, and can opponents keep the story in the news for long enough that people start to notice? That is more important than asking whether or not a story will “cut through”.