‘Why did he do it?’ how Rishi Sunak’s early election backfired on the PM

<span>Rishi Sunak on his plane as he travels from Northern Ireland to Birmingham during a day of campaigning for the 4 July general election.</span><span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AP</span>
Rishi Sunak on his plane as he travels from Northern Ireland to Birmingham during a day of campaigning for the 4 July general election.Photograph: Henry Nicholls/AP

Two days after Rishi Sunak stood in Downing Street to announce an early general election, only for the heavens to open, Tory MPs in the Palace of Westminster were still scratching their heads in disbelief.

“Why did he do it? We were all told it would be the autumn and were hoping that by then we could turn things round. It is very perplexing,” said one former minister, frowning. Others said they were simply not ready to fight a campaign and that they couldn’t raise the money in time.

In the corridors and lobbies between the two houses of parliament, the few MPs and peers who had remained in Westminster until Friday were involved in a mad legislative scramble. “A message from the Lords!” shouted a Commons official at around 11.30am, one of many such cries to ring out that day.

Doors to the lower house were flung open. The way was cleared in a great hurry. A clerk in a black cape marched solemnly from the upper house to deliver a bundle of papers from their lordships tied by a ribbon, as MPs swerved to avoid her.

It was all too frantic and at the same time too final for some to take. Tearful MPs – mostly Tory – were saying their goodbyes in the lobbies knowing they would not return. Grandees in the Commons were delivering stirring farewell speeches in the chamber after long and august careers, Harriet Harman and Theresa May among them.

At the same time staff were pulling out all the stops, dispatching messages by hand one after another, trying to salvage important legislation that they had been poring over for weeks, months, even years.

Sunak’s decision to go to the country on 4 July had created legislative turmoil. It meant parliament would shut down later that day, several weeks earlier than anyone had expected, and the whole place had been caught on the hop. Suddenly there was so little time.

Some laws that had been passing through their later legislative stages were saved and rammed onto the statute book in double quick time. But others that were not so advanced – including one to stop smoking and another to end no-fault evictions that Sunak had said would form key parts of his legacy – were too far back in the queue and had to be dropped.

In the Lords, peers stood up to bemoan the fact that important laws affecting the City of London had been ditched, at least for the time being, because of the early election.

Tories were dismayed. “It just shows how well No 10 had thought this through,” said one senior Conservative MP. “We have been talking about these bills for months. Stopping young people smoking was one of Rishi’s things. Now he has killed one of his legacy bills off just in time for the campaign. Brilliant.” It was an extraordinary end to the life of a parliament, and in all probability, to 14 years of Tory rule.

Not in their wildest nightmares could things have gone any worse for the Conservatives in the first three days of their election campaign.

The right to go to the country at the time of his or her choosing is supposed to give prime ministers the weapon of surprise. But Sunak seems to have surprised his own side more than the opposition parties which had been ready for months. He even went against the advice of his campaign chief Isaac Levido who had wanted an election later in the year, believing that by then people would feel better off.

From the moment he announced the date in the pouring rain, to the sounds of the 1997 Labour anthem Things Can Only Get Better booming out on a speaker near by, one mishap followed another, creating a sense of negative momentum that many Conservatives fear it may be impossible to reverse.

Keir Starmer was merciless in his mocking of the prime minister after photos of a drenched Sunak appeared on TV news bulletins and newspaper front pages. “The image of someone saying I am the only one with a plan standing in the rain without an umbrella is, to put it mildly, pretty farcical,” said the Labour leader.

Gaffes and blunders followed one another as if written into a script. First Sunak had to admit that no flights would take off for Rwanda with asylum seekers on board before polling day, depriving his MPs of a line they had all wanted to use on the doorsteps.

Then at an event in Wales Sunak asked whether people were looking forward to the Euro 2024 football tournament, which Wales had been knocked out of in a moment of great pain. After that on Friday he travelled to Belfast and visited the Titanic Quarter, with its suggestions of captains and sinking ships.

To compound the gathering sense of a party in full tailspin, the number of Conservative MPs announcing they were standing down rose by the hour to 78, surpassing the previous record of 72 who had departed before the general election of 1997. Were they going in order to avoid terrible defeats?

On Friday, Michael Gove announced he was throwing in the towel after 19 years saying it was time for a “new generation” to lead the party. The former cabinet ministers Dame Andrea Leadsom and Greg Clark also said they were stepping down.

In Gove’s constituency of Surrey Heath there were mixed feelings about the departing MP. But in his part of Tory Surrey there were telltale signs that Gove might just be getting out before suffering his own “Portillo moment”. Tracey Reading runs her own hair salon in Lightwater, in Gove’s patch, and made clear she was now an ex-Tory voter. She said she waited 17 months for a back operation. “Rishi Sunak’s wife is minted. I bet none of them have had to wait – 17 months is a long time to be in pain. The NHS needs a lot of money put into it and we need to have Brexit cancelled.”

Reading voted for Brexit, which Gove championed, but feels she was lied to and wants health workers who returned to Europe to be coaxed back to the UK. As for Gove? “He’s done nothing for us.” She met him once and felt he was looking down at her. “You get that feeling when someone thinks ‘why are you talking to me?’. He doesn’t even live here.”

James Stewart is a 75-year-old retired airline worker. He was sorry to hear that Gove was leaving. “But I can’t see what else he could do,” he said. “I’ve always supported the Conservatives but I’m not going to this time. It’s a waste of time.” Even in the party’s strongholds held by big names loyalty was waning.

Downing Street has claimed that the decision to go for an early election was taken by Sunak himself “several weeks ago”. But that is contested by others who also claim to be in the know and who say he only decided, finally, on Tuesday.

One view among Tory MPs is that the PM was fed up and simply wanted out. Several backbenchers said they had detected a growing impatience in private meetings with him and in his public utterances over some weeks. “Many colleagues believe he had just had enough,” said a senior MP. “I don’t know. In 1997 the economy was improving but it made no difference to us. Maybe he thought going on for longer would do nothing or even that inflation would go up again, so just go now and hope for the best.”

A member of the 1922 executive of backbenchers said he suspected that Sunak “was getting to the end of his tether”. But he added: “I think he should just have stuck it out till the autumn.” Another Conservative former minister said there was a feeling across the party that it was the wrong decision, and one which would not help the campaign: “People were living in hope. This is their livelihood, their career. They hoped that with the economy improving and Labour in the spotlight more, we could make progress. When you take away that hope people feel a bit betrayed.”

Amid the chaos there has been early bloodletting inside the government over its start to the campaign. Blame is being delivered squarely at a group of advisers in No 10 who are accused of being “arrogant” for ignoring warnings about an early poll.

The Tory peer and former MP Paul Goodman said it may be that things do not improve for the Conservatives and that their only tactic then might be to admit that a massive Labour majority is in prospect – in the hope that this would shock enough voters back into the fold. “The polls suggest that Starmer is on course for a landslide. They may be wrong. Or they may turn,” said Goodman. “But if they don’t the Conservatives may find themselves asking voters whether they really want to hand Labour a three-figure majority – and say: ‘Don’t give Starmer a blank cheque.’”

That Conservatives are thinking this way after just a few days of the campaign is evidence of just what a dire state the party finds itself in.

One way or another, it is Sunak who took the decision to go early and is certain to carry the can. “We’ll never know if October would’ve produced a better result,” said a senior Tory. “There may have been nothing we could have done. But this way, he will own the result. It will be all on him.”