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Gobsmacked Tories Dismayed Over Rishi Sunak Leaving D-Day Celebrations Early

(Alamy) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during the UK national commemorative event for the 80th anniversary of D-Day

6 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces furious criticism from Conservative Party figures and general election candidates after he left D-Day commemorations on Thursday early to take part in a TV interview in the UK.

One veteran Tory said the decision was "jaw-dropping" and made it look like Sunak and his team were deliberately trying to lose the general election on 4 July.

Sunak apologised on social media this morning and said it was a "mistake" not to stay in France for longer. He was replaced by David Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, to represent the United Kingdom at the commemorations in Normandy. The event was also attended by King Charles and Queen Camilla, Labour leader Keir Starmer, and world leaders including US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.

"The 80th anniversary of D-Day has been a profound moment to honour the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our values, our freedom and our democracy," Sunak posted on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.

"This anniversary should be about those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The last thing I want is for the commemorations to be overshadowed by politics. I care deeply about veterans and have been honoured to represent the UK at a number of events in Portsmouth and France over the past two days and to meet those who fought so bravely.

"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 had been reported that Sunak's team had considered missing the D-Day commemorations which hosted world leaders. But the Prime Minister denied this and said the claim was "simply not right" as the itinerary was organised weeks before the general election was called. 

He added that he did not want to "politicise" the fall out and said the focus should "rightly be on the veterans who gave so much".

"The itinerary for this set of events was set weeks ago, before the election campaign even began. So I don't think it's right to politicise these things. I stuck to the itinerary that had been set for me as Prime Minister weeks ago, before the election," he said. 

"On reflection, it was a mistake not to stay longer, and I've apologised for that. But I also don't think it's right to be political. In the midst of D Day commemorations, the focus should rightly be on the veterans and their service and sacrifice for our country."

The D-Day commemorations marked the 80th anniversary of the allied invasion of France. On 6 June 1944 thousands of troops landed on five beaches in the north of France. The invasion, known as Operation Overlord, was the largest amphibious military operation. It was seen as crucial for liberating Europe and defeating Nazi Germany. 

One minister told PoliticsHome it demonstrated how bad Sunak and his political team were at "politics". They added that above all it was the "right thing to do" to remain in France and commemorate those who lost their lives. 

"It just shows how bad his team are at politics," they said. "The nature of the beast is that Rishi Sunak probably has his head full of things and is doing what he is told — that is why you have people to look after you."

One former cabinet minister said the event showed a complete "lack of judgement" from the Prime Minister. Another former Tory minister said the decision was "jaw-dropping" and made it look like Sunak was "trying to lose". They told PoliticsHome: "We are wanting to run a campaign with security as the theme and don’t use D-Day as backdrop."

The incident will only further fuel concern among Tory candidates about the threat posed to their electoral prospects on 4 July by Reform UK. Opinion polls published in recent days suggest support for the right-wing party is growing after Nigel Farage took over as leader on Monday. Labour leader Starmer, who polls currently suggest is very likely to enter Downing Street next month, has also sought to position his party as stronger than the Tories on national defence.

"It will hurt me in my constituency. This is exactly the kind of place where veterans matter," one former Tory cabinet minister said. 

Another Conservative candidate and former minister said the epsiode was "very annoying" as the reception and reaction on the doorsteps had been "very good and nothing like the opinion polls". They expressed fury at "whoeever is advising" the Prime Minister.

Scarlett Maguire, director at JL Partners, said it "could be a disaster" for Sunak and described it as "such a huge gaffe".

She told PoliticsHome: "We can infer that the strategy going into this election was to try and win back what should be solid Conservative voters... Conservative voters who are currently saying they don’t know, and Conservative voters who are switching to Reform. 

"That already got harder when Farage announced a few days ago that he was going to return as leader of the Reform and was going to mount a bid for elected office again, and this has made it worse still."

She added: "If you could think of something designed to upset older voters or to signpost to them that you are out of touch, something people really think about Rishi Sunak, then this would be it."

PoliticsHome is collaborating with Thinks Insight and Strategy over the course of the campaign, to gather a view on the contest from 50 panelists across five battleground constituencies across the country.  

Sunak's decision to cut short his trip to Normandy looks to already have cut through with members of the public who voted Tory in 2019 but are now intending to ditch the party.

Leigh, a voter in Swindon, said: "I watched a lot of the D-Day ceremonies yesterday and was very moved by it all, I did not know, until this morning, that Sunak left early. I feel sad and disappointed that he did not show the respect and stay, choosing a TV interview instead.

"I think it was a very bad judgement and an apology doesn’t really cut it. I don’t know Starmer but think, in this case, he is the type of person (and his background) that would never have left early."

Johnny Mercer, the veterans minister who has a keen interest in the armed forces, acknowledged that the decision was a "significant mistake" by Sunak. He sought to play down the significance of the error, however, telling The Sun's TV show Nevermind The Ballots: “Let's not lose our heads over this. This guy has done more for veterans than any of his predecessors."

On Friday night the seven main political parties will go head-to-head in a debate televised by the BBC, where the incident is likely to be brought up. Penny Mordaunt, a former defence secretary, will represent the Tories at the debate and there are already fears within the party that she could lose her Portsmouth North seat, which has a large naval base, over this issue. 

Additional reporting from Adam Payne, Tali Fraser and Caitlin Doherty. 

PoliticsHome has exclusive access to the Thinks Insight and Strategy Election Diaries 2024. Over the coming five weeks, 50 swing voters from five battleground constituencies across the UK will be sharing what they see and hear of the general election campaign, as well as what it means to them. There’ll be regular updates here and on the Thinks website, and the views of the diarists will feature across PoliticsHome’s coverage. You can read about the diaries in more detail here.

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