Sunak Apologizes for Skipping D-Day Event in UK Campaign Blunder

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak apologized after skipping events to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day in France to return early to the UK, a major political and diplomatic gaffe that increases the risk of a landslide defeat for the premier’s Conservative Party in the July 4 election that many polls already predict.

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Sunak did attend a British event with King Charles III on Thursday morning in Normandy, but he then opted not to represent the UK alongside US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron at a gathering at Omaha beach in the afternoon. It later emerged that back in Britain, Sunak filmed a pre-recorded interview with ITV as part of his election campaign.

Sunak’s decision triggered a backlash in the UK that spanned the political spectrum. Biden used his speech at the event at Omaha beach to draw parallels between World War II and Russia’s war in Ukraine, urging Western allies to stand together to help repel Vladimir Putin’s invasion. It was a symbolic moment, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also receiving a standing ovation. Foreign Secretary David Cameron stood in for Sunak.

But even in the narrower context of the UK’s general election, Sunak’s decision appeared to make little political sense. His governing Conservatives are being squeezed from on its left by the Labour Party led by Keir Starmer — who was in Normandy — and are also in danger of being overtaken in the polls on the right by the Reform UK party led by populist Nigel Farage, who frequently leans into notions of British patriotism that look back to World War II.

“Patriotic people who love their country should not vote for him,” Farage said on the social media platform X.

Sunak has used the early part of his election campaign to try to tackle the growing threat from Reform, including a promise to reintroduce compulsory national service for younger Britons and offering a tax break for pensioners. Yet he has also tried to paint Starmer as weak on security, arguing that the Labour leader would be an unsuitable leader in dangerous geopolitical times.

Downing Street raised eyebrows when it confirmed the prime minister would pass up the opportunity to talk to world leaders, even if the gathering was rooted in events in northern France 80 years ago. Still, Sunak could argue that he would be able to do so at the G-7 summit in Italy next week.

Starmer, meanwhile, told reporters he had taken the opportunity to reassure Zelenskiy that if his Labour Party takes power in the UK, there would be no change in Britain’s support for Ukraine.

Sunak’s rationale for vacating the scene became harder to justify when it emerged he’d used at least part of the time to pre-record a political interview with ITV, only one clip of which was released for the evening news.

“On reflection, it was a mistake not to stay in France longer – and I apologize,” Sunak said on the social media platform X. “The last thing I want is for the commemorations to be overshadowed by politics.”

Yet that is what has happened, as even some Conservatives were incensed about what Sunak had done.

The Tories were already on edge, trailing by over 20 points in the polls to Labour and with Sunak racking up blunders, including announcing the election in a Downing Street rainstorm. Doing an interview in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter, where he was asked if he was captaining a sinking ship, also triggered ire.

None, though, were on a par with what Sunak did on Thursday. His decision will dominate the Tory campaign into the weekend at least, and opposition parties will inevitably raise it repeatedly between now and polling day.

“I want to put my head in my hands,” Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential ConservativeHome website, told the BBC’s Newsnight on Thursday. “It’s political malpractice of the highest order if Rishi Sunak absented himself for an election interview on ITV,” he said, calling it “indefensible.”

To be sure, it’s not clear if there are other reasons for Sunak’s return beyond the ITV interview. The clip that ITV released, though, offered some indication of what may have been on the prime minister’s mind.

Sunak had used the first televised campaign debate with Starmer on Tuesday to accuse Starmer and Labour of planning to hit British households with a £2,000 tax rise, based on what the Tories have said was analysis by Treasury officials.

By Wednesday, Sunak’s line was under fire after Labour produced a letter from the Treasury’s top civil servant James Bowler, who said the workings should not be attributed to the civil service. Starmer accused Sunak of lying, and the row was still dominating the campaigns as the premier arrived in Normandy.

In his interview with ITV, Sunak was asked if he was willing to lie to stay in power. “No,” Sunak replied. “It’s pretty desperate stuff and Keir Starmer and the Labour Party are obviously very rattled.”

With Labour’s executive meeting in London to finalize the party’s manifesto, the party hit back at Sunak and accused the prime minister of prioritizing “vanity TV appearances over our veterans.”

“Rishi Sunak will have to answer for his choice,” Starmer told reporters during a campaign visit in north London on Friday. “For me, there was only one choice.”

--With assistance from Charles Capel and Charlotte Hughes-Morgan.

(Updates with Biden speech in third paragraph, Farage in fifth.)

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