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Getting it done: how a three-word slogan catapulted Boris Johnson to a historic election win

Boris Johnson’s oft-repeated slogan presented voters with an obvious choice.

britain-conservative-party-election-manifesto-launch Boris Johnson launches his Conservative Party election manifesto last month Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

IT WAS SIMPLE, in the end.

As the opposition balkanised over how it would handle the country’s most divisive political issue in modern times, Boris Johnson - who this week alone pocketed a reporter’s phonehid in a fridge and cartoonishly bulldozed a polystyrene wall - managed to persuade voters to back his party with three short words: “Get Brexit Done”.

The result will see the Conservative Party re-elected with a majority of dozens of seats, and gives the Prime Minister a clear mandate to take the UK out of the EU by 31 January.

The fallout for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who each supported different options to remain in the EU beyond that date, will continue long after the Brexit deadline passes.

Their defeat echoes the tepid Remain campaign during the 2016 referendum, when a lack of cohesion and failure to convince voters of the alternatives to leaving the EU swung the vote.

By contrast, Johnson’s oft-repeated – if somewhat meaningless – election slogan presented voters with a much more obvious choice.

Even Leo Varadkar, who did not endorse Johnson’s vow to “get Brexit done”, stressed the need for a decisive verdict ahead of an EU summit in Brussels yesterday.

“Obviously, it’s entirely a decision for the people of the UK to elect whatever government they want and I just hope the result is decisive so that we know where we’re going over the next few months,” he said.

That’s something which Simon Usherwood, a politics professor at the University of Surrey, identified as a huge positive for Johnson’s three-word catchphrase.

He told The Washington Post that the slogan is “clear, memorable” and “taps into that sense of frustration that others feel that this is dragging on and on”.

Easy solutions

Curiously, Usherwood also said the phrase was “not inviting people to think about how it is done, or where it might lead” – not unlike Donald Trump’s successful 2016 slogan ‘Make America Great Again’.

During Trump’s presidential campaign, he offered easy solutions to complex issues, such as building a wall along the Mexican border, paid for by Mexico, to stop illegal immigration, and to bring jobs back to the US through unspecific trade deals. 

Johnson’s pledge to “Get Brexit Done” offered equally obscure hope to voters in the UK.

Despite the wording of the Prime Minister’s promise, the 31 January deadline is only the end of the beginning of Britain’s departure from the EU.

Johnson still has to negotiate a new economic partnership with the bloc – Britain’s biggest trading partner – and he has given mixed signals about what he wants to achieve.

He had promised to forge a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU, which would give Britain greater freedom from EU rules but would involve more barriers and costs to trade.

But campaigning at a factory in northeast England this week, he sought to reassure workers, saying his Brexit plan would “protect supply chains” and ensure a “zero-tariff, zero-quota relationship” with the EU.

general-election-2019 Boris Johnson driving a JCB through a fake wall emblazoned with the word Gridlock Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images

Whatever the deal entails, Johnson has also insisted that he will reach it within a post-Brexit transition period scheduled to end on 31 December next year, which is seen as a very challenging timeframe.

It’s possible that he will extend this period, but if not, some experts have suggested that a limited trade deal is likely.

Of course, none of this nuance came through in the slogan Johnson has repeated ad nauseum over the last number of weeks.

Confused opposition strategies 

But the Conservatives were arguably allowed to get away with such vagueness because of their rivals’ confused election strategies.

Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on the economy and public services like the NHS saw Labour eclipsed by Brexit - one analysis of social media showed that it was still the biggest issue for voters, despite the party’s efforts.

This non-committal position gave voters no alternative, aside from the promise of another divisive referendum on the issue, a position infamously encapsulated by Corbyn during the election campaign when he refused to be drawn on how he would vote if a second plebiscite took place.

Moreover, by attempting to move the election away from the EU debate, the party lost an opportunity to scrutinse what Johnson really meant by “getting Brexit done”.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, pledged to cancel Brexit altogether without a vote, which even some pro-EU supporters believed was undemocratic.

The party offered a complicated option to renegotiate Brexit with Brussels, and then put their deal to a public vote alongside an option to remain. 

Simon Hix, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, described the tactic as a “disaster”.

“They already had all the hardcore remainers, they weren’t going to get any more,” he said.

Tony Travers of the London School of Economics attributed this dual failure of the “remain” parties to a split in the vote between them, giving the Tories the bulk of the Leave vote.

“The pro-Brexit Leave vote was always a bit more determined than the Remain vote. The Leave vote just wanted to go, didn’t like the EU. That’s played itself out again tonight.

“In the end, the Leave vote is more solid and more committed.”

Crucially, it was also clearer. That’s all it needed for Johnson to get this election done.

Contains reporting from - © AFP 2019.

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