The Moment the Tories Have Long Dreaded Is Finally Upon Them

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s unlikely bid to remain UK prime minister after July 4 appears in tatters after a week bookended by crises: one he thought he’d avoided but the other destined to go down as an historic self-inflicted blunder.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The governing Conservatives were stunned on Monday when Brexit architect Nigel Farage said he would stand as a candidate for his Reform UK party in the election. Thinking Farage was out of the picture, Sunak’s Tories had built a campaign strategy to rally the right-wing vote that was tempted by Reform. Days after Farage’s entry, polls suggest Reform is gaining ground — and hurting Sunak’s chances of keeping Labour leader Keir Starmer from power.

Yet even worse was to come. On Friday, Sunak compounded the Tory misery when he was forced to apologize for leaving events in France to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day early. It was a political and diplomatic misstep that Tory campaign officials fear will play into the hands of Farage, who has made a career out of an appeal to British patriotism that harks back to World War II.

Surveys since Farage entered the fray this week showed growing support for Reform UK, with some predicting it will go past the Tories within days.

“If you had to design something that would cut through with voters in the most negative way possible, this D-Day fiasco would be it,” said Scarlett Maguire, director at the pollster JL Partners. “It makes Sunak look totally out of touch with the British public, and I suspect will fuel Reform’s surge in the polls.”

Sunak’s decision to skip an event in Normandy attended by US President Joe Biden and the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and others — to return to Britain, where he filmed a television interview to launch more attacks on Labour — is widely seen as the most significant moment of the election campaign.

Starmer, for his part, was at the D-Day event and used a meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy to reassure the Ukrainian president that a Labour government would not alter Britain’s support for Ukraine.

Even before the D-Day gaffe, Labour’s poll lead was larger than at any point in the last 18 months, according to Bloomberg’s rolling average of surveys by 11 pollsters, which put the opposition party 22.3 points ahead of the Tories.

The immediate concern among staff at Conservative headquarters is that Reform UK could soon surpass the Tories in some opinion polls this weekend. In Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, that crossover in the polls is unlikely to translate into more than a handful of seats in the House of Commons, but it would suppress the Tory vote further and raise the likelihood of a Labour landslide.

The 1993 election in Canada, when the center-right Progressive Conservatives were pincered between the center-left and populist right and suffered the worst result by a governing party in the Western world, looms large in Tory minds.

Sunak was despondent at the reaction to him missing the D-Day meeting, according to people close to the premier, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But he’s getting little sympathy even among cabinet ministers, some of whom told Bloomberg the decision had exacerbated their concern about his judgment and competence. One who has previously been loyal to Sunak said they now regretted that the party didn’t replace him as leader earlier this year.

What is clear is that any lift that the Tory campaign got from the first televised debate on Tuesday night, which Sunak used to attack Starmer over taxes and one poll handed the premier a narrow victory, has already dissipated.

Next week there’s an opportunity to get some traction with voters with the publication of the party’s manifesto of electoral promises. The main new announcement is a cut to the property stamp duty for first-time buyers, a person who has seen the document said. There is unlikely to be any pledge to cut inheritance tax or income tax, although it is possible they could be considered later in the campaign, they added. The Telegraph was first to report the stamp duty policy.

But for now, the D-Day blunder remains at the fore of the news cycle. One minister said Sunak had drawn more attention to it by apologizing, and that his aides were naive to think the TV debate would affect the polls. Several ministers said Sunak made a catastrophic mistake by calling the snap election, rather than waiting to see if the economy improved.

Much of the internal Tory vitriol was aimed at Sunak’s strategy of using the opening two weeks of campaigning to target Reform UK voters to try to close the gap with Labour. Some officials said that had demonstrably failed and may even have provoked Farage into reversing his decision not to stand.

That’s because the Tories and Reform UK are competing for the votes of older people on the right of politics, and news coverage of World War II veterans telling broadcasters that Sunak had “let the country down” by skipping a high-profile gathering in Normandy is likely to cut through to that demographic. A snap YouGov poll found 65% of Britons thought Sunak had behaved unacceptably.

“This political misjudgment seems almost laser-guided in causing Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party as much political pain as humanly possible,” said Chris Hopkins, political research director at polling company Savanta.

On Friday, Farage questioned Sunak’s patriotism in a video posted on the social media platform X, claiming “he doesn’t really care, frankly, about our culture.” It was a sign he is willing to use populist rhetoric reminiscent of his friend Donald Trump to attack the UK’s leader of Asian heritage.

With Labour so far ahead in the polls, few Tories expect to stay in power after the election. The Labour Party has had its campaign wobbles, especially over candidate selection, though so far nothing on a par with Sunak’s struggles.

That means much of the Tory focus is on Farage and the threat he poses to the Conservative Party. One minister said they thought Sunak should offer Farage whatever it takes to do a deal with him to stand down Reform candidates, as former premier Boris Johnson did ahead of his big win in the 2019 election.

However, an ally of Farage insisted he would never agree a deal because the Tories had reneged on commitments they made as part of that pact.

Farage looms large in the conversation about what happens after the election, too. Some moderate Tories worry he will enter Parliament and use it as a platform to pull the Conservative Party further to the right in opposition.

Assuming the Tories lose and Sunak stands down or is ousted, candidates at the next Conservative leadership election would likely be asked if they’d welcome Farage into their party, one potential contender told Bloomberg.

People on the right of the party such as Priti Patel or Suella Braverman may be in favor, while more moderate voices like Tom Tugendhat would not stomach it, people familiar with their thinking said. A survey of Tory members by the Conservative Home website found seven in ten wanted Farage in their party.

If an election defeat precipitated Farage mounting a hostile takeover of the Conservative Party, Sunak’s decision to call the election could go down as one of the great miscalculations in British political history, one minister said. Sunak might even come to be seen as worse than Liz Truss, they said.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.