Sam Bidwell is a Parliamentary Researcher, and Director of the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs.
Amidst all of the excitement of the Covid enquiry, the news that Boris Johnson, currently engaged in a supportive visit to Israel, will join GB News as a regular contributor has slipped quietly out of focus.
Yet for all the talk of lockdown, too little has been said about the unofficial cordon sanitaire that the Conservative mainstream has placed around the right-wing broadcaster. In certain circles, there is a squeamishness about being seen to engage with the channel, and an unbecoming snobbery about its viewership. Ministerial appearances are few and far between, even as viewership grows at pace. Occasional appearances by Rishi and members of his top team are regarded as a side show in comparison to interviews with ‘serious’ broadcasters such as Sky or the BBC.
In light of a bleak political landscape, it’s high time that Conservatives revaluated their position of strategic distance. Failing to do so could prove disastrous, as Sunak tries desperately to shore up the Party’s core support.
For one, GB News isn’t the hotbed of right-wing radicalism that it is sometimes portrayed as. More than two years on from its turbulent launch, fears that the channel would turn into Britain’s Fox News bear little resemblance to reality. Far from being a refuge for the fringe, GB News’ appeal is now decidedly mainstream. It now boasts regular appearances from Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esther McVey, Philip Davies, and Lee Anderson, all sitting Conservative MPs. On Sundays, you can hear from recovering trainspotter Michael Portillo, and Gloria de Piero, one-time darling of the Labour right.
And it isn’t just wayward backbenchers and former cabinet ministers. Camila Tominey of the Daily Telegraph and Andrew Pierce, formerly of The Times, fill in as regular presenters. At breakfast, it’s Eamonn Holmes and Isabel Webster, both of whom have spent time at the BBC. With the recent expulsion of Laurence Fox and Calvin Robinson, two of the broadcaster’s more inflammatory hosts, the new line-up looks remarkably respectable.
Of course, the star of the show is Mr Brexit himself. With a cadence somewhere between American televangelist and ill-mannered Kentish uncle, Nigel Farage spends 90-minutes, four times a week, putting the world to rights. Love him or loathe him, Farage is a captivating performer. Whether he will be upstaged by the undoubtedly magnetic Johnson remains to be seen.
Its viewership figures are nothing to scoff at either. According to figures from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, it had a total identified monthly audience of 2.8 million in September 2023, continuing a trend of month-on-month growth. At its peak, Farage’s personal crusade against Natwest drew nearly 200,000 viewers.
Clearly, GB News is speaking to a large section of the British public that otherwise feels overlooked. In a post-Brexit world, voters who are distrustful of immigration, who support tougher measures on crime, or who are simply sceptical of traditional media know that they can make their voices heard. They also have a greater appetite than before to hear from people who talk like them, act like them, and think like them.
Given the adverse political headwinds, the respectable centre-right can no longer afford to turn up its nose at these voters. Recent polling suggests that the Party’s ailing fortunes are at least partly a result of declining support amongst older, Leave-supporting voters. Some who backed the Party in 2019 are considering a switch to Reform; many more say that they’re unlikely to vote at all. This type of voter wasn’t just key to taking many ‘red wall’ seats but is foundational to the party’s success in places like Essex and north Kent.
Coincidentally, these are exactly the voters that GB News has been able to convert into viewers. Yet despite the opportunities that the channel offers for reaching this key group, engagement has been scant.
In the absence of mainstream Conservative voices, attacks on the Government from the right – particularly on immigration – have become a feature of life at GB News. There is a risk that sustained criticism from major anchors could further depress turnout amongst exactly the voters that the Party needs at this time of crisis. With an election set to take place in the next year or so, the threat of an unenthusiastic core vote should be enough to force moderate-minded MPs to venture out to Paddington Basin from time to time.
After all, the past decade bears testament to Farage’s ability to stir up discontent on the right.
Soon enough though, Farage won’t be the only presenter capable of doing damage. Johnson has already been vocal in his criticism of Government plans to cut HS2 and phase out cigarettes; it goes without saying that there is little love lost between Rishi and his predecessor once removed. Given a new platform from which to project his unfiltered opinions, Johnson has an opportunity to turn a considerable portion of his loyal supporters against the Government. The best antidote is surely to have friendly voices in the room making the case for Rishi.
Like it or not, GB News is here to stay. It is a natural home for a large chunk of the Conservative base, and a mouthpiece for views which enjoy considerable support outside SW1. Its roster now includes former Conservative cabinet ministers, prominent backbenchers, and broadcasting veterans, many of whom could be described as critical friends of the current Government. Its importance will only grow with the coming addition of Boris Johnson.
It’s past time that mainstream Conservative politicians recognised these realities and engaged with GB News as an opportunity rather than as the broadcasting equivalent of a leper colony. Failing to build bridges with the bellicose young broadcaster risks turning it into one of the Party’s most vocal and influential critics. As the old saying goes, one should always keep their friends close and their former Prime Ministers closer.