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12 June 2024

The Tories’ fate was decided long before the D-Day blunder

For the Conservatives, the race was probably already lost in January 2023.

By David Gauke

In January 2023, the electoral prospects for the Conservative government were not great. Their election supremo, Isaac Levido, informed the cabinet that the result of the next general election was “not a foregone conclusion” but the government needed “focus, discipline and delivery” and that “everything has to go right”.

It would be something of an understatement to say that the subsequent 17 months have not been defined by focus, discipline and delivery from the Tories. As for everything going right, the chaotic launch of the election campaign, the half-baked policy announcements, the return of Nigel Farage, the D-Day fiasco and the resignation of the leader of the Scottish Conservatives all suggest that this test has not been met. And that is just in the first half of the campaign. The result of the election is now a foregone conclusion.

Such is the state of morale that there appears to be few Conservatives giving much thought as to how to maximise the Tory vote on 4 July. Instead, the focus is on attributing the blame for the Conservative predicament and considering what happens after the deluge. The internal battles of the past and future engage Tory minds; the electoral battle of the present is too futile with which to bother.

There was briefly a moment when the Tories looked as if there was still some life left in them. Rishi Sunak gave a feisty performance in the ITV debate and delivered two messages to the viewers: that Labour does not have a plan, and that it would raise taxes. The accusation of £2,000 in higher tax per household was flaky (and the claim that the number had been signed off by the Treasury simply untrue) but Sunak had controlled the debate against a flat-footed Keir Starmer.

Within a couple of days, however, the mishandling of the D-Day commemorations had knocked whatever was left of the stuffing out of the Conservative campaign. Sunak’s decision to return early does not mean that he disrespects veterans, is unpatriotic or does not understand “our culture”, as Farage alleged (what is he implying?) but it does expose a lack of political judgement.

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It also highlights that Sunak’s conception of the role of the prime minister is too limited. Time away from the matter upon which he is focused is time wasted, in his eyes. But time to focus on one’s chosen priorities is a luxury rarely afforded to prime ministers. What he might consider to be distractions are very much part of the job.

Sunak has always been inclined to believe that it is always for him to find the solution to every problem. He works ferociously hard and has an eye for detail, qualities that contrast favourably with at least one recent predecessor. But both the underestimation of the importance of the full D-Day programme and the overestimation of his indispensability to the campaign were telling.

We should not kid ourselves that this was the crucial moment in determining the election result. The race was probably already lost when Levido said “everything had to go right” in January 2023. A party that has been in office for 14 years, won the last election with an unstable coalition in very different circumstances, has subsequently been exposed as failing to meet basic ethical standards under one leader and competence standards under another, and has presided over a cost-of-living crisis was always likely to face a reckoning. If any subsequent post-mortem dwells on the D-Day misjudgement, it will be ill-directed.

As for what happens after the election, the choice over the future of the Conservative Party has come down to a simple question about the relationship with Farage as a proxy to a bigger decision. Some Conservative candidates want to be part of the same party as Farage and, in all likelihood, ultimately under his leadership. Others do not. The former see the future of the Conservative Party as an anti-immigration populist party of the right; the latter want a party that can appeal to the traditional centre ground.

The Farage question will be asked of ministers but it is likely to be ducked. Sensible Conservatives should reject him but, as usual, the fear is of antagonising the right. It is a mistaken strategy because even equivocation validates Farage and gives those who are wavering on whether to support Reform tacit permission to consider him a respectable choice.

The Tories’ choice as to what type of party they are will come to a head after 4 July. In the meantime, is there anything they can do to minimise the electoral catastrophe? So far, the Tories’ travails have consumed all the oxygen in the campaign. Labour has received little scrutiny given the inevitability of its victory, almost certainly by a landslide. They will have won on the basis of not being the Conservatives, but that does not constitute a programme for government.

I wrote last week about Conservative candidates making the argument that people should vote for them not to return a Tory government but to hold a Labour government to account. The Tories’ online campaigning is now moving in that direction. I also wrote that this is a hard argument for Sunak to make because it looks as if he has given up. The D-Day commemoration misjudgement – raising questions about his appetite for the job – has made it harder still. With three weeks to go, he has to show he is up for the fight.

Three weeks. Not enough time for the Conservatives to recover, but an eternity for a beleaguered Prime Minister.

[See also: Not even Rishi Sunak believes he will enact the Tory manifesto]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency