Voices: Sunak’s D-Day blunder shows he has a tin ear for politics

In politics, there is what they call “bad optics”… and then there’s disrespecting war heroes.

Rishi Sunak didn’t intend to do so – he’s not a monster – but leaving the D-Day commemorations early, to return to election campaigning was, as he himself now acknowledges, “a mistake”. That’s putting it mildly.

As with so many developments during this general election campaign, it’s unprecedented for a party leader to have to apologise in such a fashion. That he has had to do so has highlighted a flaw in Sunak’s character that is not helping his chances of survival.

To Sunak, the decision to get back to his floundering campaign as soon as possible must have seemed logical. The D-Day event was, after all, purely ceremonial, and the King was present as head of state.

Sunak was making what he considered a rational choice, not an emotional one.

This is what leaders often have to do; but that reveals a flaw in his character, and one that had come into sharper focus in this election – a certain lack of empathy. One cannot imagine, say, Tony Blair or David Cameron (who also attended) making the same error of judgement. Or, indeed, Keir Starmer.

By contrast, one can imagine Theresa May, Gordon Brown or, further back, Ted Heath making a similar blunder, and they all suffered for their poor political antennae and a sometimes cold manner.

Sunak is not a bad or callous person, but he seems driven more, shall we say, by the spreadsheet than the heart. To borrow a phrase from the political folklore of the past, he is a bit of a “desiccated calculating machine”.

It’s the difference, which we’ve all encountered in our lives, between intelligence, which he possesses in abundance, and emotional intelligence, which he, well, doesn’t.

On its own, this self-confessed “dereliction of duty” might not have been so damaging, but it fits into a narrative of a man ill at ease with people outside his usual metier, and lacking that essential quality of simpatico that marks the truly outstanding politician.

It was rather like when he asked those Welsh folk if they were looking forward to the Euros, when Wales didn’t qualify, or asked a homeless man if he was in business.

It’s an odd failing in a politician, and an especially damaging one in somebody who actually hasn’t proved quite as successful in purely technocratic terms as first appeared.

As we all know, Sunak didn’t promise to be all touchy-feely, the kind of prime minister who oozed compassion when he arrived in No 10. Even the furlough scheme he launched as chancellor was a hard-headed attempt to save the economy as much as saving lives. He instead offered a prospectus of managerial efficiency, with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.

Sadly, he hasn’t delivered that either.