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  1. Election 2024
7 June 2024

Rishi Sunak’s D-Day departure was far worse than a gaffe

The Prime Minister made a crude attempt to seek political advantage by leaving early.

By George Eaton

Has Rishi Sunak lost what remains of his political judgement? That is the question being asked across the spectrum today. In a competitive field, the Prime Minister’s decision to leave the D-Day ceremony early will be remembered as one of the worst campaign decisions in history. 

When it first became clear that Sunak had absented himself – leaving David Cameron to appear alongside world leaders in France – some speculated that he had suffered a family emergency. The answer was far less reasonable: Sunak had dashed back to do an interview with ITV denying that he lied over Labour’s tax plans (he did). In short, the Prime Minister put crude electioneering before commemoration of those who fought and died for their country. 

Faced with cold fury inside the Tory party, Sunak tweeted this morning: “After the conclusion of the British event in Normandy, I returned back to the UK. On reflection, it was a mistake not to stay in France longer – and I apologise.” It couldn’t help but feel perfunctory. 

From any occupant of No 10, the decision would have been remarkable. But Sunak is someone who has chosen to fight the election on security – claiming that Labour endangers it – and to announce the introduction of national service for 18-year-olds. The optics, as they say, are not great. 

This was something far worse than a gaffe – which by definition is unintentional (such as struggling to use a card machine). Sunak made a conscious decision to leave early in the hope of deriving some political advantage. Indeed, Reaction’s Iain Martin has reported that his original intention was not to attend at all (something denied by No 10). 

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Even on a base political level, the Prime Minister’s decision makes no sense. He handed Keir Starmer the opportunity to appear statesman-like alongside Volodymyr Zelensky. He gifted Nigel Farage an attack line for tonight’s BBC TV debate. 

“Rishi Sunak could not even be bothered to attend the international event above Omaha Beach,” the Reform leader tweeted, slotting a ball into an open net. “Who really believes in our people, him or me?”

Some will be tempted to describe this as the moment that Sunak lost the election. It isn’t – this election was lost long before the Prime Minister called it. But it is a moment that reveals why he is losing: terrible political judgement; a haughty and remote style; an impatience with much of humanity.

 “Power corrupts… But what is never said, but is just as true, is that power reveals,” wrote Robert Caro, the biographer of Lyndon B Johnson. And how revealing power has been of Rishi Sunak.

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