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Sun, 14 July 2024

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Nasty Surprise: How the Tory campaign collapsed

11 min read

Rishi Sunak told his troops there was a steep narrow path to victory and then dashed them to defeat. The blame game and battle to replace him broke out long before the result, reports Tali Fraser

The inquest into the Tories’ worst election ever began well before polls closed on July 4. From the very moment Rishi Sunak sprang his surprise on May 22, his critics have been sharpening their knives.

It is not just a question of “I told you so” – the narrative of why and how the party lost so terribly will be a key theme in the leadership race to come. As one CCHQ source tells The House: “Recriminations begin now.”

The battle centres on 4 Matthew Parker Street and across key seats in a campaign that started badly – and only went from worse to worse.

“It only got progressively more difficult as the campaign continued,” one former minister who lost their seat laments to The House.

After 14 years that included austerity, Brexit and five different prime ministers, losing was not unexpected, but did Sunak and his team do their best with a bad hand – or were they guilty of turning defeat into disaster?

Going to the King before “consulting” his cabinet, without consensus amongst even his closest circle as Tory campaign chief Isaac Levido warned against the idea, a summer election was always going to be a gamble (we will get to that shortly…). But the thinking was that by hanging on, it looked like things could only get worse.

Nobody expected that the New Labour anthem, D:Ream’s famous song, would be the backing track to the announcement, as Sunak stood drenched in the pouring rain with no umbrella, the printed copy of his speech falling apart it was so sodden.

One CCHQ insider told The House that it was at Sunak’s “insistence” he do the speech outside.

There remains an intense anger about the way the snap election was handled. CCHQ seemed unprepared, strategically and financially, candidates and activists had not been arranged, expecting something nearer to the end of the year, and even Tory MPs themselves, many at risk of losing their seats, were blindsided, thinking they had more time to both finish up their work in the Commons and shore up their next steps.

Even Sunak’s whips were not pleased as they discovered that Speaker Lindsay Hoyle had found out about the early election before them. After giving countless reassurances to their flocks that the prime minister was not going early, they were embarrassingly forced to backtrack and apologise for not having been kept in the loop either.

That the prime minister’s closest aide, Craig Williams, placed a bet on the date of the election only added insult to injury.

Former spads were spotted lazing in the sun in St James’ Park, sipping Diet Cokes. There is even a case of one staffer walking out of CCHQ in the middle of the day and not coming back

The night before the announcement, at a dinner for the APPG for beer– where Williams was awarded “beer drinker of the year” – he assured Conservative colleagues he knew nothing of rumours about a snap election being called the following day.

“We didn’t appreciate being lied to, especially now knowing he had already put his bet on,” one MP tells The House.

Williams had been sending out daily campaign texts to Tory MPs, but when the story broke the reins were swiftly handed over to party chairman Richard Holden.

He has since kept a low profile, losing his Montgomeryshire seat, but The House understands he has texted some Tory MPs: “I’m sorry.”

There are other issues that came with a summer election, namely: Nigel Farage. Had he waited until the autumn, Farage may well have ended up on what he branded the “more important” Trump campaign instead of standing in Clacton and becoming Reform’s new leader.

“I don't understand why Sunak and Oliver Dowden thought this up because they're supposedly clever people, but a snap election is a gift to Nigel Farage. It's minimal work, you show up and you make a big splash. That's it. That is what they handed to him,” a senior Tory figure says.

According to party insiders, Levido argued that Labour voters who had lent the Tories their votes in 2019 and were switching back had already been lost, and advised that efforts be focused on Reform switchers instead.

But there was no enthusiasm to take on Farage directly, with worries of giving him any additional airtime.

A selection of Tory MPs warned that the approach from CCHQ would lead to there being no Northern Tory MPs. They weren't far off in the end. One is understood to have even written to CCHQ about their concerns, to little response.

Tory MPs – even moderate ones – have expressed regret over not moving to oust Sunak pre-election in favour of someone like Penny Mordaunt, who has since lost her seat, no doubt in part to Sunak’s D-Day blunder.

“There was a moment when changing leader for anyone but him was a marginal decision in the sense that he was obviously bad, and it might not have been as bad as him,” one says. “If it had happened, Penny Mordaunt would have stayed at D-Day.”

Inside CCHQ they began their days by listening to Elvis' A Little Less Conversation... a little more action, but the mood was low within the first few weeks of the election and, like the polls, failed to bounce back, especially following the D-Day debacle.

“D-Day was a complete catastrophe that everyone was like, this is such a fundamentally basic error, we can't recover. We just can't. I think at that point, too many people in CCHQ, too many people in No.10 thought what's the point? When you've lost your will to that extent you may as well go home,” one senior Tory tells The House.

Go home people did. Staffers in CCHQ began sunbathing in the afternoon, with former spads spotted lazing in St James’ Park sipping Diet Cokes. There is even a case of one staffer walking out of CCHQ in the middle of the day and not coming back. Rows of people who remained were spending time scrolling on LinkedIn for jobs and more senior members of staff were even advising some to leave, campaign for MPs they believed in personally, and secure their next steps in the private sector.

As the crowd chanted Boris’s name after his speech, CCHQ staff tried to start the same for Rishi, but nobody joined in

“It needs to be burnt down from the ground up,” one Tory MP declared. "What has become increasingly clear as each week of the campaign goes by is that drastic change is needed in Conservative Party headquarters."

A Tory source agrees: “It needs a root and branch change.”

They are scathing about the ineptitude they experienced during the election. In Surrey, for example – what was once Conservative heartland – resource expenditure was thrown at Dominic Raab’s former constituency of Esher and Walton, which the Tories clung onto by less than 3,000 votes in the 2019 election. Yet hundreds of campaigners were sent there, neighbouring candidates say, at their expense.

“It is a joke that so much was being thrown at the Lib Dems’ number one target seat, which made their number two, three, four target seats within reach,” one MP says.

When the issue was raised with CCHQ, one staff member dismissed their concerns: “You don’t understand, we are playing the biggest game of poker you’ve ever seen.”

They went on to lose swathes of what should have been safe Tory seats.

One candidate affected by this decision-making puts it plainly: “CCHQ is full of men lacking in testosterone looking to get a power trip.”

Even cabinet ministers were impacted by the disorganisation, often campaigning with only one or two regular volunteers as no infrastructure was sent to help them.

There were fears, too, that CCHQ was struggling with money as promised donors failed to come through, sparking frustration that they may have overspent. One Tory source says: “It’s worrying. The party has been spending like all their pledges were going to come through, but it doesn’t appear that they have.”

The areas where it focused its efforts did not always pay off. The party encouraged its disillusioned activists to use its app Share2Win, where they could easily post the party’s lines on social media to build momentum during things like TV debates. But on the day the party pushed activists to use it, the app crashed.

Candidates, too, were encouraged – often unsuccessfully – by CCHQ to host TV debate parties for their campaigners. But as one now MP, who refused the request, says: “Watching Sunak’s performance wasn’t exactly morale-boosting.”

“When – after a bad day campaigning – I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought to myself, ‘at least I’m not Rishi’,” one MP, attempting sympathy, tells The House.

He was batted away from constituency visits by candidate after candidate, notably absent from election literature and even had to worry about keeping his own seat.

One senior MP, who had some trouble in their seat, made it clear to the party he “wasn’t interested” in having Sunak visit.

Another Tory MP, provided with letters that came out of CCHQ’s national spend to win over Tory/Lib Dem swing voters, said they didn’t use them “because they had Rishi’s face all over them”.

As one MP, then candidate, said to The House: “At least Boris was Marmite and might win you some votes. Rishi wouldn’t convince anyone but would actually put some people off.”

At the eleventh hour, Sunak called in his former boss to appear at a rally just two days before the polls closed to show his support. As the crowd chanted Boris’s name after his speech, CCHQ staff tried to start the same for Rishi, but nobody joined in.

The next battle for those who remain is to decide where the party goes next, and who represents its future.

Some of the vying contenders have been in a shadow campaign throughout the election. Whether it was making constituency visits to potential supporters, sending endorsement videos or just dropping the odd text, the fight for the direction of the party has been well underway.

[Jenrick] is like a desperate boyfriend who won’t leave you alone. I had to start coming up with creative excuses to keep him away from doing a constituency visit

Tom Tugendhat has been clear about his ambitions amongst friends, but one says he “hasn’t necessarily been openly touting” and – in an attempt to dampen his blatant jostling before the election was over – claims that on some of Tugendhat’s many visits during the campaign “he didn’t mention leadership at all”.

Former home secretary Priti Patel has emerged as a potential “unity” candidate, untainted by the Sunak storm but not public with any criticisms. One friend maintains that during the election she “had not been sending out signals”. Even so, Patel was still making constituency visits to constituencies likely to stay blue, with one such candidate claiming she was “definitely getting ready for a bid”.

The right of the party is dominated by the bookies' favourite for the job, Kemi Badenoch. She maintained a low profile during the election, only sending endorsement videos to a select few. A friend of Badenoch’s claims “no one is getting ahead of themselves, especially as a number of other candidates have been returned to Parliament”, but discussions have been had with colleagues over which shadow cabinet roles they might like.

If you are a Tory MP and you haven’t heard from Robert Jenrick in his positioning for leadership, you are the odd one out. Every MP spoken to for this piece had some form of contact from the former immigration minister to the extent that one tells The House he called her ten times: “He is like a desperate boyfriend who won’t leave you alone. I had to start coming up with creative excuses to keep him away from doing a constituency visit.” His efforts started before the short campaign had even begun, inviting candidates with potential for success out to breakfast.

Now the leadership contest is only expected to widen – and offers a situation Labour can exploit to their advantage. One senior Tory puts their predicament succinctly: “Everything is up in the air.

“If Labour have got any sense, they will move incredibly quickly on select committees so they will force us into making decisions we don't necessarily want to make by people ruling themselves out for roles and going for something like chair of the PAC instead.”

As for the assessment of the general election campaign, one CCHQ source says: “We deserved to lose.”

And things aren’t exactly looking up, as a senior Tory MP tells The House: “We are now in a nightmare, and it’s not quite clear how we escape it.”

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