Rishi Sunak’s shocking D-Day week makes Tory election fight even tougher, writes Laura Kuenssberg

Sunak’s shocking week makes Tory election fight even tougher

“Very badly.” “Devastating.” “He knows that he has made a mistake and it is a factor in the election campaign that we did not want to have.”

In public, this is how Rishi Sunak’s cabinet colleagues have described his D-Day mistake.

In private, it’s even worse.

One Cabinet member told me this shows Sunak “simply has no idea how to do politics”.

One senior party figure told me: “I feel like Michael Foot in a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph”, referring to the former Labor leader’s infamous outfit in 1981. “It just makes your heart drop.”

Another Conservative source spoke of his disbelief at Sunak’s decision to abandon the D-Day ceremonies early, saying “this is the worst political operation in Number 10’s modern history.”

There is a different view from some of the Prime Minister’s allies, a committed group of people working as hard as they can in very difficult circumstances. They have four weeks left, which might seem very long.

A loyal minister says there are now only two options: “Lose your head or continue campaigning.”

The error itself

In the frenzy of campaigns, as in politics and life in general, everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

This one is almost impossible to understand.

It wasn’t a split-second decision that went the wrong way, nor a hot mic moment like Gordon Brown’s creepy “bigoted woman” comment about Gillian Duffy in 2010. It was a deliberate choice made beforehand.

Sunak’s decision to miss part of the ceremony always caused diplomatic offense and upset veterans. And from a campaign standpoint, he was rejecting some of the most powerful images any candidate could dream of, to be seen alongside the American president, the royal family and military figures.

His early departure meant he was not part of a photo op of world leaders. Instead, Foreign Secretary David Cameron was photographed alongside President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

It should have been a golden opportunity for the Prime Minister to project strength, particularly when the Conservatives are trying to portray Labor as weak on defence. “It was a no-brainer,” says one minister. “Why not pick up the 100 million dollar bill that is on the ground?”

A quick apology is about the only aspect of the affair that wasn’t a disaster.

Ammunition for smaller groups

The danger for the Conservatives now is not only that the D-Day mistake will influence the electoral conversation, but that the fear and hatred within the campaign will come to light.

Sunak is, I’m told, “truly sorry” for what happened and has acted in government to try to help veterans, so this hurts.

But even before this, there were fears that Reform UK, under Farage’s leadership, could overtake the Conservatives in the polls, possibly in the coming days.

“If the reform is brought forward, it will cause total panic,” a party source told me. To be sure, Sunak’s early exit is particularly complicated because he is likely to upset precisely those voters the Conservatives have been trying to woo back.

All the smaller parties, for whom it can be difficult to get a word in, were last night able to lash out at the Conservatives with what seemed like genuine indignation.

It was also notable that they all take a Labor victory for granted; in fact, they are trying to turn that projection into their campaign advantage.

The Greens, Plaid and the SNP have tried, in various ways, to present themselves as those who can maintain Labour’s honesty, keep the party to its left-wing roots and prevent it from becoming what they claim would be a softer pastiche of the Conservatives. .

Screenshot, UK Reform leader Nigel Farage and Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth make their points during the BBC election debate.

One source told me: “It is clear that the smaller parties are the only challenge for the Labor Party, and that is part of their path to debate. It’s clear the Conservatives aren’t winning, so who’s holding Labor to account?

In fact, a senior Conservative source believes the share of the vote for the smaller parties is likely to be the highest this time around. We’ll see.

My usual reminder: Voters are volatile and there is plenty of time left in this campaign.

Plaid and the SNP also made positive arguments for immigration, a rare moment in politics in 2024. One SNP member said his party “actually has something to say, breaking the conspiracy of silence on the cuts, the Brexit and also migration.”

The Liberal Democrats, who are having the liveliest campaign, admit that for smaller parties, “the existential challenge is not that people don’t like your policies: it’s that people literally forget that you exist.”

The smallest matches sometimes have to be the fastest, the most fun, or the most controversial to get ahead.

However, there is no doubt that in these general elections the smaller parties could have a lot of influence. See how often Keir Starmer has been campaigning in Scotland to try to humiliate the SNP.

Or just ask Conservative MPs, desperately worried about the Lib Dems and reform.

Questions for the campaign

The big moves and big mistakes of the two big parties almost always suck up most of the oxygen in the campaign. And this week’s epic blunder has rattled conservatives across the country, raising questions about the campaign.

One minister furiously wanted to know how on earth the team around Sunak had allowed him to make the mistake in the first place: “What is the point of Liam (Booth-Smith), or James (Forsyth), or Isaac (Levido) in a moment like this, if they don’t tell me, ‘you’re crazy, if you do this, I’ll quit.’”

It is worth saying that one of the challenges of any campaign when its leaders are in government is that they have time when they are out of the way and doing official business that cannot be controlled. But this feverish weekend, that defense probably won’t do much good.

There are many broader complaints about the operation. A senior Conservative told me there are experienced advisers “sitting” who are not being taken advantage of. “Donors are watching in horror,” they said.

The well-known letter from business leaders backing the party has yet to arrive, and there are suggestions that money is tight.

One former minister said there was “no sign of Rishi and CCHQ controlling the campaign” and the outlook was “uniformly poor”. Another source complained that Rishi Sunak called the election after being warned there was trouble inside the store.

“This was all very predictable,” the source said. “More than a year ago specific complaints were made that CCHQ was totally incapable of supporting the parliamentary party, let alone fighting an election campaign. Despite those complaints, no changes were made.”

Others at party headquarters say they have expanded the operation and increased the number of campaign managers over the past 18 months.

One government insider pointed the finger at Sunak and his close team: “We have known for two years that this was pure incompetence and arrogance. Now everyone can see it.”

Oh! Others deny any such problems, saying “the equipment is holding up well.”

Screenshot, Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, in front of Keir Starmer at the Normandy D-Day event

So what happens next?

And yet, breathe, repeat after me, there are still four weeks ahead of us.

A minister says that when they knock on doors, there are still undecided voters who can change; another says that “polls are worse than doors.”

Next week we will see the party’s manifestos: the Conservatives are expected on Tuesday and the Labor Party on Thursday.

They will be a total contrast. The Conservatives are putting forward a growing list of plans designed to appeal to their former chief backers, but don’t expect a shopping list from Labour. They will propose deliberately familiar plans, with a message of change and reform. There are no traditional big checks for utilities.

The party’s top brass does not want to fight over how much money to spend on public services and will simply argue that the Conservatives have ruined the economy. One source says they can’t discuss how to divide the spending pie because “the problem we have in this country is that the Conservatives have eaten all the pies and also burned down the kitchen.”

After the last few days, the conservatives have the challenge of recovering part of the agenda and diverting the conversation from the Normandy mistake.

As the national campaign falters, some candidates tell me they are already conveying some of their pleas to voters at the door. Taking a cue from what are described as “smartest Labor MPs in 2017”, they change the message to: “There’s going to be a landslide, you probably don’t want that, that’s not good for the country, and why would you want that?” ? Do you want to lose your local champion?

It’s difficult for conservative politicians to say that explicitly in public, as they recognize that their rivals are on track to win big. But a party campaign source acknowledged they would be trying to “warn people about what a large Labor majority would do”.

Some of the party’s online content already talks about “holding Labor to account”; The implication of this, of course, is a tacit recognition that they are likely to win.

But in political times, elections are practically years away. Remember also that last weekend Labor was on the defensive, struggling to contain disputes over the candidates and veteran MP Diane Abbott.

Rishi Sunak has had a surprise this week, but one hopeful government insider told me “Keir Starmer could be having a bad day. A member of the shadow cabinet might say something completely idiotic… so we can start tearing our hair out and talking about how horrible it is or try to keep fighting an election.”

But there’s no doubt that after the last 48 hours, fighting those elections has become more difficult.

Top image credit: BBC/Alamy/PA Media

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