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8 June 2024

Rishi Sunak’s comedy of errors

The Prime Minister has pulled back the curtain and revealed a total lack of political judgement.

By Jonn Elledge

In the 1985 movie Brewster’s Millions, Brewster (Richard Pryor) has to blow a $30m fortune in 30 days without anyone realising he’s trying. I use this example – rather than the vastly more famous The Producers – because it’s not very good (Rotten Tomatoes: 38 per cent). It feels a more apt reference when trying to answer the following question: how is Rishi Sunak so bad at this? Is it possible he’s doing it deliberately?

A quick recap, for anyone who’s been sealed in a vault. Thursday was the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings, better known as D-Day – the largest seaborne invasion in history and the moment that began the liberation of France from the Nazis. The ceremony, attended by leaders from the US, France and Germany among others, will likely be the last major commemoration of that event to actually feature those who took part in it. Footage of Martin Freeman reading the words of 99-year old survivor Joe Mines, present and waving but too frail to speak himself, was moving.

Anyway, Sunak couldn’t be bothered, and left halfway through. Being pictured with other world leaders on Omaha Beach as they paid tribute to the young men who gave their lives for freedom would be a slam dunk for any prime minister, you would think. It would be especially potent for one desperately trying to claw back support from older, socially conservative voters. And yet. Somehow Sunak thought the smart move was instead to sneak back to Britain to do an interview with ITV. It wasn’t even live. On Friday, the Ukrainian government released a video of its president, Volodymyr Zelensky shaking hands with other world leaders. One of them was Keir Starmer.

ITV’s Paul Brand has said that this was not the only time available for the interview – of course it wasn’t, it’s the Prime Minister, you make time – but the one he was offered. Some Tories responded by claiming Sunak’s actions were a compromise, because he originally hadn’t wanted to go to the D-Day anniversary at all. This line of argument can hardly have helped his case. But if doing the interview was an attempt to get “Sunak lies about Labour tax plans” out of the headlines, it’s worked. Now we are talking about his disrespect for the war dead.

This must surely be the worst example of campaign mismanagement – and I don’t just mean for Sunak; for any politician ever (prove me wrong!). But it’s hardly the only example of Sunak’s penchant for entirely unforced errors. Others have included calling an election campaign without consulting either his cabinet (several of whom were abroad) or his backbenchers (some of whom immediately started briefing about a leadership challenge). He also failed to check the weather forecast before making a long speech outside. The rain-sodden Prime Minister looked especially foolish considering the core message of that speech was: “We have a plan.”

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He offended some Welsh voters, on television, by asking if they were looking forward to football’s Euros this summer, which Wales did not qualify for. He visited the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and posed on a plane in front of a sign reading “Exit”. In Stoke-on-Trent he did an entire speech with his back to the cameras. In Henley, he faced the camera, and therefore didn’t notice the boatful of Lib Dems going past behind him wielding placards.

Even the apparent win of repeating his “Labour’s tax bombshell” talking point throughout the debate, his one good moment of the campaign, only caused more problems the next day when the top civil servant in the Treasury confirmed that these were not, as the Prime Minister had claimed, civil service figures. Sunak is a man with unerring political instincts. It’s just that the thing is they are unerringly wrong.

So what is it? Is Sunak, like Richard Pryor’s Brewster, on a secret mission of some kind? Is he doing this for a bet? Is he a Labour sleeper agent? Does he really rate his Labour opponent in his Yorkshire seat of Richmond, Tom Wilson, and think he’d make a great MP? Does Rishi, like many of us, have a fascination with the 1993 Canadian centre-right election wipeout, and wants to see how close to that result he can push his party? Was he grown in a lab, the result of an experiment aimed at producing material for Britain’s hard-working political columnists?

Two other possibilities occur. One is that Rishi Sunak has always been clever – his CV is that of the eternal head boy – and thus has never learned to countenance the possibility that there are simply things he doesn’t know. As Prime Minister, he has surrounded himself with advisers who have much the same attitude, many of whom have been scooting around the country gobbling up safe seats and will be guiding their party for some time to come. The result is an entire leadership team made up of people who are not only bad at politics, but are hermetically sealed off from anyone who would ever let them know as much.

The other possibility is that he is just an idiot.

[See also: How Mondeo Man lost faith in politics]

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