Rishi Sunak’s D-Day snub: What happened and what it means for his campaign

Rishi Sunak’s D-Day snub: What happened and what it means for his campaign

Rishi Sunak’s election campaign has been thrown into disarray after the Prime Minister was forced to apologise for skipping a major international ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day in order to take part in a TV interview.

– How did the saga unfold?

The Prime Minister attended the UK national event at Portsmouth on Wednesday and then the British ceremony in Normandy on Thursday, the anniversary of the allied landings on D-Day.

D-Day 80th anniversary
Rishi Sunak at the UK national commemorative event for the D-Day 80th anniversary in Normandy (Jane Barlow/PA)

But he then left France before the high-profile gathering of world leaders, including Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, on Omaha Beach for the international ceremony on Thursday afternoon.

Instead, he left Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron to be pictured alongside the US, French and German leaders paying tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

It was also an opportunity for Mr Sunak’s rival for the keys to No 10, Sir Keir Starmer, to rub shoulders with world leaders. It was the Labour leader, not Mr Sunak, who was seen with Volodymyr Zelensky in a video of the event shared by the Ukrainian President on social media.

It emerged later on Thursday that Mr Sunak had returned to the UK to do a pre-recorded interview with ITV on the same day.

Broadcaster Paul Brand confirmed on ITV News At Ten that Mr Sunak hotfooted it from Normandy to speak to him, saying: “Today was the slot we were offered … we don’t know why.”

– What was the reaction?

The condemnation by political rivals was swift and fierce and Mr Sunak’s decision also caused unease in Tory ranks.

He was accused by Reform UK leader Nigel Farage of having “ducked out” of the ceremony so he could campaign in the election.

Tory sources initially played down the diplomatic impact of Mr Sunak’s absence, pointing out he will be meeting other G7 leaders next week at a summit in Italy.

But news that the Prime Minister had returned early for a TV interview to try to boost his flagging electoral prospects triggered another wave of anger, with Tory MPs venting their frustration in newspapers and the row making the front page of The Mirror on Friday.

Labour accused the Prime Minister of a “dereliction of duty”, while ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie called it “political malpractice of the highest order”.

– What happened next?

Junior minister David Johnston was sent into broadcast studios on Friday morning where he struggled to defend the Prime Minister’s snub.

On Times Radio he was confronted with a message from one Conservative activist who said they “wonder whether I should bother” going out to knock doors for the party “when the Prime Minister seems to be doing all he can to lose the election”.

Minutes later, Mr Sunak took the extraordinary step of saying sorry for his “mistake”.

He wrote on social media site X: “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.”

Mr Sunak repeated his apology in an awkward exchange with broadcasters on the campaign trail later in the day.

He insisted he “stuck to the itinerary that had been set for me as Prime Minister weeks ago”, suggesting he had never intended to go to the centrepiece of the D-Day commemorations, even before he called the election.

“On reflection, that was a mistake and I apologise,” Mr Sunak said, as he urged people not to “politicise this”.

– How did people react?

Fresh criticism was heaped on the Prime Minister following his apology, with Labour accusing him of “yet more desperation, yet more chaos, and yet more dreadful judgment”.

Leader Sir Keir said on a campaign visit that the Prime Minister will “have to answer for his own actions”, but “for me there was nowhere else I was going to be”.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said Mr Sunak’s actions had “brought shame” to the office of Prime Minister.

General Election campaign 2024
Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron was pictured alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden (Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo/PA)

Stinging rebuke also came from Normandy veteran Ken Hay, 98, who said: “He lets the country down.”

– Did anyone else get blamed?

Yes. Mr Sunak’s team and the Conservative campaign also came in for criticism.

Sir Craig Oliver, who was Lord Cameron’s No 10 communications chief, criticised the Tory campaign for sending children’s minister Mr Johnston out without knowing “what to say” about Mr Sunak’s actions.

“It was pretty clear that the Conservative campaign was going to be massively on the back foot today,” he said.

He also said the team should have planned to “block the Prime Minister out” for D-Day events, with their failure to do so leaving Mr Sunak facing accusations of “not getting what it is to be a Prime Minister”.

Former Downing Street adviser Samuel Kasumu tweeted: “The PM has a team of people that are all around the same age, gender, background, social circle. His best mate should not be his right hand man. That really doesn’t help when it comes to decision making/blind spots.”

He also said Tory MPs, councillors and activists are “trying their best not to blow up in public right now” after “the whole country has been let down”.

The former head of the Royal Navy, Lord West of Spithead, said Mr Sunak’s advisers “should have told him” to stay and that it was “stupid” and “comes over very badly” for him to have missed out, adding: “What a cock-up.”

– What does this mean for Mr Sunak’s election prospects?

It is not a good look for a Tory leader who has made national service, security and winning over pensioners central to his pitch to voters ahead of July 4.

Pollsters Savanta predict it will cause the Tories, who are already languishing in the polls, “as much political pain as humanly possible”.

Chris Hopkins, Savanta’s political research director, said: “An embattled Conservative leader, seen as out of touch with ordinary voters, and leaking votes to Reform UK, frankly couldn’t have imagined a worse news story than leaving a D Day commemoration early after having allegedly not wanted to go at all.

“Based on Savanta’s research, this political misjudgement seems almost laser-guided in causing Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party as much political pain as humanly possible. And they only have themselves to blame.”

– What happens now?

Mr Sunak’s advisers will be hoping that the rare prime ministerial apology will put a lid on the debacle, but questions over his political nous threaten to overshadow his battle to stay in No 10.

And it leaves Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, a Navy reservist, in an awkward spot as she faces off against deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner, Mr Farage and others in a BBC debate on Friday evening.