Rishi Sunak’s shock landing week makes the Tories’ election battle even tougher, writes Laura Kuenssberg

Sunak’s shock week makes Tory election battle tougher

“Very wrong.” “crush”. “He knows he made a mistake and that’s a factor in the election campaign that we didn’t want to do.”

Publicly, this is how Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet colleagues described his D-Day blunder.

In private, it’s worse.

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

“It looks like Michael Foot wearing a donkey jacket at the memorial,” one senior party figure told me, referring to the infamous outfit the former Labor leader wore in 1981. “It makes your heart sink.”

Another Tory source spoke of their disbelief at Sunak’s decision to leave D-Day celebrations early, claiming “this is the worst political process in No 10’s modern history”.

There is a different view among 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 – which may seem very long -.

One loyal minister says there are only two options now: “Lose your head or continue the campaign.”

Same error

In the madness of campaigning, 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 taken in the wrong direction, or a passionate moment like Gordon Brown’s appalling “female bigot” comment about Gillian Duffy in 2010. It was a deliberate choice made beforehand.

Sunak’s decision to miss part of the ceremony was likely to cause diplomatic offense and upset veterans. From a campaign standpoint, he was turning down some of the most powerful images any candidate could dream of, which could be seen alongside the US president, the royal family and military figures.

His early departure meant that he was not part of the world leaders’ image. Instead, Foreign Secretary David Cameron was pictured standing alongside President Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

This should have been a golden opportunity for the Prime Minister to show strength, especially when the Conservatives are trying to portray Labor as weak on defence. “It was a no-brainer,” says one minister. “Why don’t you pick up the $100 million bill on the floor?”

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

Ammunition for small parties

The danger facing conservatives now is not only that the D-Day blunder has colored the election conversation, but that the fear and hatred within the campaign has exploded into the open.

I’ve been told that Sunak is “genuinely remorseful” for what happened, and has acted in government to try to help veterans, so this hurts.

“If it goes beyond repair [it] “It will lead to complete panic,” a party source told me. Sunak’s early exit is particularly difficult because he is likely to upset precisely the voters the Conservatives are trying to lure back.

All the minor parties, who can have a hard time getting a hard-liner in, were able to attack the Conservatives last night with what seemed genuine indignation.

It was also notable that they all assumed that Labor would win – and in fact were trying to turn this expectation to their advantage in their election campaign.

The Greens, Plaid and the SNP have all tried, in different ways, to portray themselves as the people who can preserve Labour’s integrity, hold the party to its left-wing roots and prevent it from becoming what they claim would be a softer version of Labour. Conservatives.

Comment on the photo, UK Reform leader Nigel Farage and Plaid Cymru leader Ron Up Earwerth make their views clear during a BBC election debate

One source told me: “It is clear that the small parties are the only challenge facing Labour, and that is part of their way into the debate. The Conservatives are clearly not winning, so who is holding Labour to account?”

In fact, one senior Conservative source believes the vote share for minor parties is likely to be the highest ever this time. let’s see.

My usual reminder is that voters are fickle, and this campaign still has a long time to go.

Both the Blade and the SNP have also made positive arguments in favor of immigration, a rare moment in politics in 2024. One SNP insider said their party “actually has something to say, breaking the conspiracy of silence on cuts, and Brexit.” European Union, and immigration as well.”

The Liberal Democrats – who have the most electoral campaigns – acknowledge that the existential challenge for smaller parties is not that people don’t like your policies: it is that people literally forget you exist.

Sometimes, small parties have to be the quickest, the funniest, or the most controversial.

However, there is no doubt in this general election that small parties can have a big impact. Find out how many times Keir Starmer has campaigned in Scotland to try to humiliate the SNP.

Or ask Conservative MPs who are very concerned about the Lib Dems and reform.

Questions for the campaign

One minister desperately wanted to know how the team around Sunak had allowed him to make the mistake in the first place: “What’s the point of Liam’s words? [Booth-Smith]or James [Forsyth]or Isaac [Levido] At a moment like this, if they don’t say: ‘You’re crazy, if you do this, I’ll quit.’

It is worth noting that one of the challenges facing any campaign when its leaders are in government is that they have time when they are off track and doing official business that you cannot control. But at the end of this hectic week, this defense is unlikely to do much good.

There are a lot of broader complaints about the process. One senior Tory MP told me there are experienced advisers “sitting around” who are not being used well. “Donors look on in horror,” they said.

The familiar message from business leaders who support the party has yet to arrive, and there are suggestions that funds are tight.

A former minister said: “There is no indication that Rishi and CCHQ will do this [get a] control [of] campaign” and the outlook is “uniformly bad.” Another source complained that Rishi Sunak called the election after being warned of problems inside the tent.

“All of this was expected. Over a year ago, specific complaints were made about CCHQ’s complete inability to support the parliamentary party, let alone fight an election campaign. Despite these complaints, no changes have been made,” the source said.

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 inner team: “We have known for two years that this was pure incompetence and arrogance. Now the whole world can see it.”

Oh! Others deny that such problems occur, saying that “the team is well cohesive.”

Comment on the photo, Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty pose for Keir Starmer at the Normandy D-Day event

So what happens next?

However – take a breath, repeat after me – there are still four weeks to run.

One minister says that when they knock on doors, there are still undecided voters who could switch – and another says: “Polling looks worse from the doorsteps.”

Next week we will see party manifestos, with the Conservatives expected to release on Tuesday, and Labor on Thursday.

The party’s top brass do not want to get into a fight over how much money to spend on public services, and will be committed to making their case that the Conservatives have screwed up the economy. One source claims they can’t get into an argument about how to divide the spending pie because “the problem we have in this country is that the Tories have eaten all the pie and burned down the kitchen too.”

After the last few days, the challenge for the Conservatives is to bring back some of the agenda, and change the conversation away from the blunder in Normandy.

As the national campaign falters, some candidates tell me they are already shifting some of their demands to voters on the doorstep. Following the example of what one describes as “the smartest Labor MPs of 2017”, they turn the message into: “There will be a landslide, of course you don’t want that, and that’s not good for the country, and why would you want that? Do you want to lose your local hero?”

It is difficult for conservative politicians to say this openly in public, while acknowledging that their rivals are on track to win big. But a party campaign source admitted they would try to “warn people about what a large Labor majority would do”.

Some of the party’s online content does talk about “holding Labour to account” – of course an implicit admission that it is likely to win.

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

Rishi Sunak has had a shock this week – but one upbeat Cabinet member told me: “Keir Starmer could be having a bad day. A member of the shadow cabinet might say something completely stupid…so we can either start tearing our hair out and talking about how terrible it is or try to keep fighting the election.”

But there is no doubt that after the last 48 hours, the fight in this election has become much more difficult.

Top image credit: BBC/Alamy/PA Media

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