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Rishi Sunak's D-Day Decision Looks Set To Define The General Election Campaign

Rishi Sunak attends commemorative ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day Allied landings in Normandy, Thursday, 6 June 2024. (Credit: Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP)

6 min read

Rishi Sunak’s decision on Thursday to leave D-Day commemorations in Normandy early looks like it could define the general election campaign.

The disaster came towards the end of a week in which the Conservatives actually did rather well. Having set the terms of the TV debate on Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s attack line accusing Labour of secret plans for tax rises was dominating the narrative, even if there were doubts over its accuracy.

Manifesto week

Labour’s crunch ‘Clause V’ manifesto meeting is still underway at the time of writing. Around 80 stakeholders arrived at 10am, handed in their electronic devices, and were given numbered copies of the manifesto. They had two hours to read the manifesto before running through the document, section by section.

Unlike the Conservatives, who have a small group of officials draw up and sign off their manifesto, the job of creating Labour’s comprehensive policy offer is elaborate. Labour sources were hopeful before the meeting that it would be quicker than the eight-hour ordeal in 2019, however, thanks to a slimmer document. That is also down to the chair – usually the job of the National Executive Committee chair but this time given to national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden. “Says a lot about his power,” one source noted.

Will the trade unions be happy with the final wording on workers’ rights? Unite is expected to release a statement after the meeting. “Unite will probably put something critical out regardless of what is agreed,” one Labour adviser predicted on Thursday. “What they don’t realise is, that’s what LOTO want.”

Labour will launch its manifesto on Thursday, June 13. The Lib Dems are going this coming Monday, June 10, and the Conservatives are expected to reveal all on Tuesday, June 11. The House editor Francis Elliott hears there may yet be one more tax rabbit still to come out of the Tory hat.

Conservative headquarters were happy with how the TV debate went on Tuesday and they are looking ahead to a squeeze message towards the end of the campaign. “Head over heart,” voters favouring Reform will be told. In a tacit acknowledgement that Labour’s victory is all-but inevitable, the underlying message will be: “Don’t hand Starmer a massive majority by wasting your vote on Farage.”

Where’s the remote?

On BBC One at 7.30pm tonight we’ll be treated to a seven-way debate between the parties, with Penny Mordaunt representing the Tories, Angela Rayner in for Labour and of course Reform UK leader Nigel Farage.

Campaign Confidential understands Rayner has been prepping with practice run-throughs covering core policy questions, difficult personal attacks and in-fighting. And who was cast to play Farage in those sessions? None other than "Big Dog" Damian McBride, the former spinner for Gordon Brown, who is talented and controversial in equal measure and now advises Emily Thornberry.

Rayner is widely expected to bring the fight to the other parties and bring the punchiness Keir Starmer didn’t on ITV, but sources say that’s not quite right: Labour’s deputy leader plans to go in calm this evening, not all guns blazing, and will be “channelling stateswoman”.

Former No 10 comms director: Tories “deserve to be attacked” over D-Day error

Lee Cain, Downing Street director of communications under Boris Johnson and founder of consultancy Charlesbye, thinks Sunak did well on Tuesday. “The TV debates are not actually a debate. It's your opportunity to frame the entire election,” he says.

“You could tell Rishi had done a few of these things before. He had the same training we did in ’19 with Boris. He very much understood that the purpose was to frame that choice and he wanted to land that tax message.”

And Starmer? “He didn't really seem to have a story for change,” Cain says. “He kept debating issues on Rishi’s turf, which felt incredibly naive.”

Mo Hussein, former chief press officer at No 10 and now UK president of Edelman Global Advisory, reckons Sunak had his own activists in mind when he took a robust approach to the debate.

“Because he's doing so badly in the polls, he had to be noticed and come out looking like he was fighting for his various audiences, not least Conservative MPs, activists, people who are trying to knock on doors. Does he still have the fight in him? Is he still passionate about this? I think that's who he was really trying to talk to.”

Cain predicts Mordaunt will be the focus of attacks tonight after the D-Day disaster. “Frankly, it's the Conservatives’ own fault. If you're going to run a campaign on security and defence and have policies like national service, and then your campaign to your PM makes such a catastrophic own goal, you deserve to be attacked in that way" in the debate.

In for a Penny...

How will Mordaunt respond? “They're putting someone forward whose natural position will be to talk about defence and security, but every time that comes up now they're going to get attacked so it's much more difficult to reframe things,” Cain notes.

“She'll be thinking of her own seat too. I imagine she's just got to say, ‘The PM was wrong and we made a bad decision’, which is not great to go into a campaign debate with.”

Hussein is “not sure that she will necessarily say something too helpful to the PM”. He explains: “If she's asked, which somebody probably will ask her, ‘would she have stayed?’, she'll have to say ‘yes’. She will want to draw an internal point of difference.”

Cain says the D-Day decision wouldn’t have happened under his watch – “No, absolutely not” – and although campaigns are difficult, this blunder is “particularly difficult to understand”.

“When you're running a campaign that's on security, that's on defence, to then undermine your own credibility by making this decision to come back, especially for an interview that's so overtly political in a campaign, I think it's obviously a gross error of judgment.

“I imagine they'll be having a very tough day inside CCHQ today, and I'm sure they've got a lot of regret… But it's fundamentally the PM. The PM – it doesn't matter what he's advised – he should know where he needs to be in something like this. And he will have been given that advice from officials in Downing Street who are still doing their job.”

Hussein explains: “You do get into this bunker mentality, right? That happens more when you're on a campaign and you're constantly being fed data and looking at the polling and thinking, ‘we need to pivot here’.”

He continues: “But also the PM himself has a role in this, and can say, ‘actually, this is hugely important, and it's not disconnected to the campaign’. Let's be honest, if you're campaigning on a security ticket, and you're being squeezed by on the right by Reform, and the people you're trying to get to vote for you really care about this issue, there’s a question of judgment.”

And how will Rayner do? Theo Bertram, former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, thinks Farage will try to paint his opponents as “liberal elite”, which “I don't think Angela Rayner fits neatly into”.

His biggest tip: take a leaf out of Ed Davey’s book. “He's having a fantastic campaign. That's partly because people see who they think he really is, and they see that through him having quite a lot of fun. TV debates are stressful, but it is possible to enjoy the debate and that comes across well.”

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