Lord Heseltine warns spiralling Tory party is ‘fighting for its life’ after disastrous D-Day fallout

Michael Heseltine has issued a rallying cry to the Conservative Party, warning that it is in the “fight for its life” and needs to focus on attacking the enemy.

The dramatic intervention by a former deputy prime minister – who was at the heart of the Tories’ most unlikely victory in 1992 – comes as the polls are predicting a Canadian style wipeout of the party.

Tory MPs fear that the fate of the Canadian Conservatives in 1993, when they went into the election as the government and were left with just two seats, could be their fate in 2024.

But Lord Heseltine urged the party to “learn the lesson” from the spirit of El Alamein – the pivotal Second World War battle where the fortunes of Britain and her allies finally turned around and the apparently inevitable victory of Adolf Hitler was stopped in its tracks.

The intervention has been made at a crucial point in the general election campaign where Rishi Sunak has gone to ground after his appalling mistake in leaving the D-Day commemorations early. It also comes as:

  • Senior ministers are already engaging in a phantom leadership contest to replace Mr Sunak, believing the election is lost.

  • Cabinet minister Mel Stride denied Mr Sunak wants to quit before the election.

  • A poll suggests that the Tories could be left with 37 seats according to a Deltapoll survey.

  • Polling guru and Tory peer Lord Hayward’s analysis suggests that the Tories can stave off a wipeout.

  • Former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith is leading demands for policies – including ending inheritance tax for middle earners – which will shore up the Tory vote and diminish the threat from Nigel Farage.

  • Four right-wing Tory MPs have signed up to another political party’s pledges and accepted its donations.

Lord Heseltine told The Independent that Mr Sunak’s apology for his D-Day gaffe should be accepted as a rare example of a politician admitting he had made a mistake.

He said: “The election campaign has become a rewrite of one of history’s greatest military achievements. We shall never forget the sacrifice of so many young people from our country, the Commonwealth, America and Europe.

At the Conservative Party Conference in 1995 (PA)
At the Conservative Party Conference in 1995 (PA)

“Forty years ago as defence secretary I stood alongside the Queen at the commemoration at that time with tears in my eyes. Rishi Sunak made a serious mistake. He had the courage to acknowledge it and apologise. Few politicians ever do that.”

But it was other military analogies which sprung to mind for him when looking at the Tories’ current predicament.

“As I read the press and examine the polls there is another historic memory we should remember – Dunkirk. The French put their soldiers between the beaches and the Germans to enable us to evacuate our army with the purpose to fight back.

“‘We shall never surrender’ echoed down the corridors of history.”

The political grandee believes that the government is not getting enough credit for steering the UK through an unprecedented period of global disasters.

“The country has been through a world economic depression, a world epidemic, the Ukrainian war, and everyone has felt and is feeling the consequences of events that had no causes in this country.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, watched closely by Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine (left), during her speech at the opening of an all-day seminar on Science and Technology, which the Premier chaired at Lancaster House, in London, 1983. (PA)
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, watched closely by Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine (left), during her speech at the opening of an all-day seminar on Science and Technology, which the Premier chaired at Lancaster House, in London, 1983. (PA)

“The Conservatives shouldered their responsibilities and, under the present prime minister and chancellor, have enabled us to see the first shoots of recovery: falling inflation and economic growth.”

And he believes that this week should be seen as an opportunity for a turning point.

“To follow the military analysis it is General Montgomery at El-Alamein, one of the first turning points of the Second World War. Of course there were disputes between allies and even their military commanders but there was no doubt about one clear thing: the need to win and the need to attack the enemy.

“The Conservative Party should learn from that lesson. It is fighting for its life.

“It has three targets: a Labour Party which throughout its history when entrusted with power has run our economy into the ground; a bundle of minor parties that can never form a government; and Nigel Farage with his nauseating racist undertone pandering to the worst known instincts. Across the water communities are being torn apart.

“In the US we are faced by Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, not only racist but threatening the very isolationist policies that kept America out of the Second World War until Hitler attacked them in 1942. A political party armed with popguns should be able to hit such targets.”

Meanwhile, with the concerns about Mr Farage and Reform UK apparently closing the polling gap with the Tories, senior figures want Mr Sunak to shore up the party vote.

In response, in an extraordinary move, four right-wing Tory MPs – Dame Andrea Jenkyns, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Marco Longhi and Karl McCartney – have signed up to Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party’s four pledges to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, repeal the Human Rights Act, ban gender reassignment and reform the Equality Act. They all accepted £5,000 from Reclaim.

There is also worry that tomorrow Reform UK will make a big announcement on inheritance tax for middle earners which could harm the Tory vote further.

Former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told The Independent he has a four point plan to turn things around. He said: “First we need to show how Labour will tax everyone. The £2,000 per household is good, keep punching that and others. Second, take middle income earners out of Inheritance tax.

“Third, Conservatives will not run to a net zero ideological agenda and will not impose extra taxes which Labour will. Fourth, make it clearer that a vote for Reform will let Labour in.”

Former cabinet minister David Jones agreed. He said: “We should make a firm commitment to abolish inheritance tax. That is a prime concern of traditional Conservative voters, largely people of moderate means. We should have abolished it years ago. It would be the moral thing to do (allowing people to pass on to their families assets they have built up through savings from taxed income). It would also be sound politics, because Labour would never match the commitment, simply because they believe in taxing wealth.”

Analysis from polling guru Robert Hayward suggests that the party “still has something to fight for” and that the constant predictions of a wipeout “will be out by a lot”.

He believes that the situation could be more similar to 1992 when Labour were predicted to win and the Tory vote was underestimated, although he thinks Labour will win this election. At the time he had briefed John Major that this was happening in the polls.

Lord Hayward said: “If you look at the polls and then you look at the election and by-election results in councils in particular they do not tally up.

“The polls are much worse for the Tories than they were in 2022 and 2023 but the local elections in May were much better. Candidates like Andy Street in the West Midlands and Susan Hall in London easily out did the polls.”

He is questioning the calculation methodology of polling companies which he believes is exaggerating the Labour vote as well as that of minor parties such as Reform, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

He also warned against using the seat estimation website Electoral Calculus which is the source of many dire predictions of a Tory wipeout: “I gave up using it several elections ago, it is one of the worst tools available.”

Nevertheless, senior ministers already appear to have given up on the election and are preparing for the leadership election to replace Rishi Sunak afterwards with rumours swirling that he wants to quit now.

There have been claims that defence secretary Grant Shapps, former Home Office minister Robert Jenrick and security minister Tom Tugendhat are putting teams together. Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch have already got teams in place although Ms Mordaunt is “currently in the fight of her political life” to save her Portsmouth North seat.

It has been claimed that Mr Shapps’ “sabre rattling” on China and Ms Badenoch’s “culture wars” policies on trans issues are as much to promote them as potential leaders as help the party.