The third part of a selection of pieces of analysis (with data and charts) quantifying different aspects of the Brexit coverage in the UK news media in 2018. Round 3: Who is outperforming the Shadow Cabinet in terms of influencing the Brexit debate?

In this third part of the analysis, we look at the backbenchers. How do each party’s backbenchers compare to the frontbench on Brexit media coverage. Answer: a small handful of Conservative and Labour Backbench MPs...

In my previous analysis, we saw how the Labour frontbench had failed to drive column inches across online news outlets. Today, I look at how the backbenchers and Lib Dems are influencing the Brexit debate.

In terms of headlines across 2,000 Brexit stories, the Lib Dems take 1% of the headlines referencing an MP, with Labour’s backbenchers taking a further 1%. But overall, Brexit news is being led by the Cabinet figures, who account for nearly 90% of citations.

Brexit headline references. (January-August 2018)

However, within the articles themselves (a subset of 1,300 Brexit stories from January this year), we can see that backbenchers begin to have a real impact...

Of the analysed references to MPs in articles, 25% are down to prominent backbench MPs. Just 9 Conservative Remain supporters account for 9% of all article references – about as much as the entire Shadow Cabinet. Labour backbench Remain supporters account for a further 3%.

The Lib Dems account for ~2% of all Brexit story MP references.

Article body text references. (January-August 2018)

On the Leave side, it is a similar story. 9% of references (again, equivalent in scale to the entire Shadow Cabinet) are driven by just 10 Conservative Leave supporters. Labour Leave supporters like Kate Hoey🗳️ and Frank Field🗳️ account for an additional 2%.

So, what about the individual MPs driving column inches – who is impacting the Brexit debate the most?

On Labour’s Remain side, Chuka Umunna🗳️, referenced in 6% of Brexit articles, is ahead of all individual Shadow Cabinet members barring Jeremy Corbyn🗳️ himself… Chris Leslie🗳️, Owen Smith🗳️ and David Lammy🗳️ also have meaningful volumes of references.

Percentage of articles referencing MPs. (January-August 2018)

On the Conservative EU-friendly side Anna Soubry🗳️ is the clear leader among backbenchers in terms of driving the Brexit agenda, with 7% of articles referencing her. That is as much as Keir Starmer🗳️, Diane Abbott🗳️ and Tom Watson🗳️, combined.

Nicky Morgan🗳️ and Dominic Grieve🗳️ are also driving stories for the Conservative backbenchers, cited in 5% and 7% of Brexit stories.

For the Lib Dems, Vince Cable is on par with Keir Starmer in terms of impact on news coverage of Brexit, followed by Jo Swinson🗳️ and Tom Brake🗳️.

On the Leave and Hard Brexit side of the spectrum, Labour’s backbenchers have a small effect – particularly Kate Hoey and Frank Field, but it is really the Conservatives that have a significant impact.

A startling 17% of the 1,300 online news items assessed referenced Jacob-Rees Mogg🗳️ (which, to me, seems wildly disproportionate compared to the coverage of his pro-EU counterparts), with 4% covering Iain Duncan Smith🗳️.

So, the question is: who is covering the different ‘factions’?

There are some differences across news outlets. In the chart, I have indexed the number of citations of a few MPs relative to the number of Brexit articles for each publication that I have analysed.

Number of articles referencing MPs. (January-August 2018)

What does it show? Well, it shows that Conservative Leave backbenchers are more likely to be cited in the Daily Mail, as is the Shadow Cabinet. In fact, the Daily Mail references the Conservative backbenchers more frequently than Labour frontbenchers (including Corbyn!).

Compared to other sites, the BBC is more likely to reference EU-friendly Conservative backbenchers, while it less likely to reference EU-friendly Labour MPs. The opposite is true for the Independent, while the Guardian sits in the middle of the pack for most groups.

Buzzfeed favours the Lib Dems, while the Sun barely references them at all…

If we pick out a few of the top cited MPs, we can see similar trends across news outlets (see my previous piece on the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet). 23% of Daily Mail items reference Jacob Rees-Mogg, as do 14% of the BBC’s and 16% of the Guardian’s.

Percentage of news articles referencing MPs. (January-August 2018)

Anna Soubry features in the Daily Mail, BBC and Buzzfeed more prominently, while Vince Cable is favoured in the Guardian and Independent.

Broadly speaking however, despite some variation, most of the outlets illustrate comparable trends in coverage and citations of individual MPs – ultimately it is really the tone and angle that differs.

In conclusion, backbench MPs are having a far larger effect on the tone and shape of the Brexit debate than the Labour frontbench.

So, the real opposition to a Hard Brexit is not from the Shadow Cabinet. Just 16 cross-party backbench MPs fighting government policies around a Hard Brexit have achieved 31% greater impact on the news agenda than 27 Shadow Cabinet members combined.🔷


  • I generated a list of nearly 2,000 headlines using Google’s site search feature (looking for ‘Brexit’) restricted to items published since Jan 1 2018. For 1,300 of these items (those not behind a paywall), I have assessed the article contents for keywords.
  • I have done my best to remove errant links/references to other items on each site from the text analysed, as this risks over-representing certain terms on certain sites. This does mean there is a margin of error in this analysis.
  • This isn’t a 100% exhaustive list of all items published by each news outlet on Brexit, but it is a good sample, representing at least one per day for most of the major news sites.
  • Each article is only counted once per politician — regardless of how many times they are referenced in that article. I took into account the fact that full names might not be used in articles.



Embed from Getty Images

(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Chris Dorney.)