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3 July 2024

Rishi Sunak makes his last stand

The Prime Minister’s final push was a greatest hits of Tory failures.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak chose the Royal Army Museum in Chelsea to make his last stand. In a campaign finale, opposite an 1878 painting of Gurkhas using trees for cover and beneath a suspended helicopter that, cartoonist Morten Morland observed, made the Tories look as if they were fleeing Saigon, his lieutenants gathered for one final push. From the balcony, Greg Hands got a sympathetic applause. James Cleverly grinned at activists. “David” – presumably Cameron, not Davis – loitered unseen at the back. Tory HQ, I’m told, decided to host the event one night early in order to give broadcasters, who are banned from talking politics on election day, time to cover what was to unfold.

Michael Gove, an indefatigable campaigner throughout these six weeks, kicked off proceedings. He channelled his inner Gordon Brown by reeling off the unsung achievements from the past 14 years: the best schools in Europe, the 2012 Olympics, the vaccine roll-out, etc, etc. The Prime Minister, Gove told this throng of party members, had a “moral core that is unbreakable”. In a presumably inadvertent reference to Monty Python, Gove went on to ask: “What has Keir Starmer ever done for us?”

The surprise was Boris Johnson. He has returned from his European sojourn to help save a party from a poison he administered. Looking like unset papier-mâché, Johnson joked his way through a pantomime routine. He attacked Labour as “cocky, complacent, smug… Corbynistas” and Reform as “Putinistas”. He complained about being kept away from the cameras. “I feel deprived of your company,” he pleaded. But his performance was little more than light relief for the Tory troops on the front line.

Johnson did not remain on stage to welcome his successor as prime minister, and mentioned him only once in his speech. “Isn’t it great to have our Conservative family united, my friends?” Sunak, the man whose resignation was the death warrant for Johnson’s premiership, asked the crowd. It was a little late for unity. The backstabbing between these three – Johnson, Gove and Sunak – is one reason why the Tories’ decimation could define their legacies. In any case, it didn’t last long. Within hours, Suella Braverman was condemning the party’s high immigration and high taxes in the Telegraph, blaming them for Reform’s success.

Sunak looked determined, serious, angry and concerned, unaware that he was surrounded by relics. Johnson’s jokes got sympathetic laughs tinged with sadness, like those in a eulogy. Gove was emphatic but ineffective. With this cast of characters, even if it wasn’t the intention, Sunak reminded voters about the past 14 years not the next 14.

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[See also: Is Reform taking Labour votes?]

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