A Controversial Compromise: The Conflict Frame Surrounding Brexit

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union last year Theresa May has been working on a plan to execute the separation. Up until recently Mrs. May preached a  “red-line” stance on Brexit, stating that she would never compromise on key issues for her party and other supporters of the split. But when she presented her plan for Brexit a few weeks ago, Mrs. May faced immediate backlash and multiple attacks over her new stance. Critics of this proposal are outraged by her new plan to compromise with the E.U, saying that her proposal is not what she promised.

The New York Times piece, ‘Theresa May Tried to Lead Britain to a Brexit Compromise. Was it Too Late?’, by Ellen Barry goes into depth over Mrs. May’s controversial compromise. But like many articles focused on legislative policy, this article uses the conflict frame, specifically polarized forces, substantive debate, and parliamentary tactics, in order to report on the issue in a way that is enticing to readers. These tactics highlight the existing conflict between lawmakers in Britain and the growing polarization surrounding Brexit.

As defined in Combative Politics, the term ‘polarized forces’ is characterized by presenting the “two sides of the issue […] within the first four sentences [of an article], setting [it] up as an examination of the ‘two sides of an issue” (Atkinson 2017, 37). Barry does this right off the bat in her article. She writes, “the full weight of two and a half years of struggle was visible on Prime Minister Theresa May’s face when she appealed to her colleagues to let go of their passionate, polarized beliefs and support her plan to leave the European Union in a vote on Tuesday.” This introductory anecdote set Barry’s article up to be exactly what Atkinson cautions against: a story that focuses attention on the polarization of an issue or piece of legislation.

In addition to this, Barry’s article uses substantive debate by covering the two-sided debate between elites in response to Brexit legislation. Her article highlights the “political effects of [this] legislation” and the “two sided discussion of [its] efficacy and merit” (Atkinson 2017, 38). Barry does this by including a number of quotes by people close to Mrs. May, their heated opinions about her, and writers who have covered Brexit in the past. She writes that “”She has not prepared the nation for what a compromise looks like,” said Katie Perrior, who served briefly as Mrs. May’s director of communications after she became prime minister. “At the beginning there was so much hard talk. ‘These are my red lines.’ Now people are trying to match the hard-talking Theresa May with another, more compromising one. She has not really explained that gap.” This quote uses polarized forces and substantive debate by presenting the disconnect between what Mrs. May said and what her proposals look like now. It also paints a picture of discontented elites who feel they were promised one thing and are getting another. Here Barry highlights the ways in which people are questioning the merit of Mrs. May’s Brexit.

Lastly, Barry’s article is an example of parliamentary tactics, or “articles that detail strategies to advance preferred policies and defeat one’s they oppose”, in action (Atkinson 2017, 39). Her New York Times article details Mrs. May’s background and how and why she was chosen to handle Brexit. It also lays out strategies that Mrs. May used in the beginning and how those strategies are playing out now. Barry writes that “if Mrs. May’s appeal for compromise has rung hollow, it is due in part to her own choices. For two and a half years as she negotiated Britain’s departure from the European Union, she was secretive about her intentions, like a poker player holding her cards to her chest. Early on, she expended vast reserves of energy reassuring the hard-line faction of her party that she was on their side, declaring boldly that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” This brings direct attention to Mrs. May’s tactics and how she has attempted to execute Brexit for better or for worse.    

All of this can be systematically investigated with the code Atkinson created for identifying the conflict frame and its effects on legislation. As more and more controversy begins to surround Brexit, public opinions of the matter are shifting and many worry that Britain’s politics are dangerously close to becoming a culture war (Barry 2018). For this reason, it is of critical importance that articles surrounding this and other legislation is coded for conflict frames in order to combat possible negative public opinion by bringing attention to its effects.

Works Cited:

Atkinson, Mary Layton. 2017. Combative Politics: the media and public perceptions of lawmaking. London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd. 


I have acted with honesty and integrity in producing this work and am unaware of anyone who has not. Ashton Eggers 12/09/2018

A Controversial Compromise: The Conflict Frame Surrounding Brexit

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