Corbyn and Johnson’s strategic narratives on the campaign trail

Our analysis focuses on the ways in which Corbyn and Johnson’s campaigns aided the formation of strategic narratives about the UK’s role in international politics. With the 2019 election called to overcome a political deadlock over the process of de-Europeanisation, the UK’s international standing requires new narratives. This analysis is guided by two questions: What are the key news media campaign themes aiding the formation of strategic narratives by Corbyn and Johnson? What, if at all, do those themes reveal about the UK’s standing in international politics after elections?

During the 2019 election cycle, Jeremy Corbyn faced a significant level of opposition from both historically hostile and sympathetic media alike. With regards to international politics, the framing of Corbyn in the media thus centred on questions about his suitability for leadership. Reporting of Corbyn in relation to foreign policy demonstrates this well – instead of praising or criticising Labour’s foreign policy, coverage focused on Corbyn as a threat to national security. One example of this is Corbyn’s argument for further NATO’s engagement with Russia depicting the Labour leader as a “puppet from Moscow”, whose limited reaction to comparisons with Stalin was telling.

Corbyn neither promoted nor had a chance to promote a particular strategic narrative, as the Labour Party’s focus on domestic policies during the campaign meant that he downplayed the articulation of a compelling vision for Britain’s geopolitical future. The key media theme we identify concerning Corbyn was consequently his lack of a strategic narrative, which was only furthered by the media deeming him as an unsuitable leader to represent Britain on the world stage. Corbyn’s strategy of transforming the UK into a social-democratic, European state via ‘radical’ domestic policies thus failed to convince electorate who chose to be something other than ‘European’.

Owing to Boris Johnson’s near refusal to divulge the UK’s post-Brexit path beyond ‘get Brexit done’, media coverage of his election campaign attempted to de-code the meaning of ‘Global Britain’. As the NATO summit was held in Watford, reflection on the UK’s standing in the alliance became a prominent media theme during the campaign. Media favourable towards Johnson positioned the UK as a ‘particularly influential’ member of the Alliance due to its commitment to defence spending targets, which most European members ‘fail to meet’. As such, the UK was presented as ‘influential’ owing its status of a ‘vital hinge’ between the US and European allies. In the spirit of punching above its weight, the special relationship with the US was used to exemplify UK’s global reach. Yet, the Johnson’s campaign failed to address the question of the UK’s position beyond NATO. These linchpins suggest an Anglo-American narrative based on its ties with NATO and the US, whilst remaining committed to ‘global security’, as a pillar aiding the preservation of the UK’s standing. 

As well as Johnson’s declarations regarding NATO, his commitment to the alliance was reinforced by his stance towards Russia. Yet, his delay to publish the Russian interference report was essentially under-reported by Johnson-favouring media. Critical media reports speculated and challenged this narrative suppression, indicating the Conservatives’ willingness to accept oligarchical funding. On the one hand, the campaign coverage reveals Johnson’s ‘tough talk’ on Russia as a form of personalised posturing, whilst, on the other hand, inadvertedly showing that the UK is open for business with a diverse range of political regimes, which subscribe to diverse forms of political governance.

A lack of detail on the ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal is a telling aspect of the 2019 campaign coverage. Positive coverage framed the UK as having the luxury of choice when it comes to post-Brexit trade deals with there even being the possibility of ‘playing the EU off against the US’ as though there is a bidding contest to win a free trade deal with the UK. Moderate optimism for the UK remaining desirable and influential perseveres, and the election result may serve to indulge this notion further.

Unquestionably, party leaders have the ability to form strategic narratives about one’s own states in international politics. With the 2019 election result likely to accelerate the de-Europeanisation of the UK, both party leaders showed different abilities, constraints and approaches to the articulation of their vision of the UK in international politics during the election campaign. Whilst the media campaign discourses shifted the positioning of the UK in international politics, largely by using sloganeering and fragmented statements on the conduct of foreign policy, the political realties after Brexit will likely speed up the soul-searching for Britain’s new strategic narratives. In the first instance, the 2019 election result demonstrates that the exploration for strategic narrative will have to begin with the reassessment of the UK’s credibility as an actor in international relations.