OPINION - I advised David Cameron before he became PM and this is what I'd tell Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer


We will never know if Gareth Southgate’s Euros squad announcement just the day before was the trigger that caused Rishi Sunak to make his surprise election announcement. Did the Prime Minister look at a line-up loaded with young talent and conclude that going to the polls just as the nation will, hopefully, be preparing for a sun-soaked quarter final was a good idea?

By settling on July 4, Sunak and his team of advisers might have calculated that the Three Lions’ progress under the leadership of someone able but dull might be a useful backdrop to a campaign where positivity will be in short supply. Same goes in Scotland where all eyes will be on their team and a manager unencumbered by charisma.

What’s certain is that the campaign kicked off yesterday with a worldie of an own goal from the PM. Becoming an instant meme machine, Mr Sunak stood there soaked with his statesman-like script drowned out by Labour’s Things Can Only Get Better.

While Labour activists were cleverly cranking up the volume at the entrance to Downing Street, I suspect Tory advisers were behind the black door arguing over whether an umbrella would make the PM look privileged.

I suspect Tory advisers were behind the black door arguing over whether an umbrella would make the PM look privileged

The debacle was entirely avoidable if they had broken away from an old-fashioned view of “how these things are done”. They didn’t need to make the announcement in the street, at a lectern, in the rain. And they should have anticipated the musical protest, one of the oldest tricks in the campaigning book.

As for the choice of July, it’s likely that Tory strategists have calculated that with inflation down and the Rwanda scheme revived, at least for now, Things Would Only Get Worse if they held off until November.

It’s also possible that Team Sunak have gambled that, despite their near constant demands for an election, Labour would have secretly preferred more time to prepare.

There’s often a gap between a party leader’s “bring it on” rhetoric and the operational truth of their campaign machine. When I was a member of David Cameron’s election team, we repeatedly called over three years for the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, to “stop bottling it”. We did so knowing full well that if he called our bluff, we would be less than perfectly prepared.

Sir Keir Starmer has had four years to get his ducks in a row. But he’s also had to prepare to face three very different Tory leaders and, as is so often the case with campaigning, there will still be chaos behind the curtain.

Having a manifesto ready, agreed and polished is an example. I bet Labour’s version is still being bashed around the policy team — the ultimate “drafting by committee” nightmare.

Many have been predicting an unprecedented number of Tory MPs preferring to jump rather than face the indignity of being pushed. The Chief Whip might have advised that an earlier election would prevent colleagues from pondering that option over a long summer with their families. A risky call as it could just force some into a decision.

Now that the gun has been fired, Sir Keir must brace himself for scrutiny on a level he has never experienced. In Opposition, you can cover the essential policy bases, but there’s no way to prepare for the unknown. Or the inevitable — and potentially very revealing — cock-ups that a campaign will bring. Gordon Brown should take the time to tell Sir Keir all about the day he met Gillian Duffy.

The biggest challenge for both candidates: how do they properly engage, never mind excite, a disconnected public in this election?

In the highly improbable event that either leader was to ask for my advice, I’d strongly argue in favour of boldness. Be brave, show some passion, take a few risks — the electorate will warm to a potential PM who is willing to break free from greyness and caution and work hard to show they actually want the job.

Those inside the political bubble spent yesterday in an increasingly frenetic state of excitement as rumours spread of an announcement. But for the vast majority of people in Britain, the news was just the latest turn of the dull and depressing Westminster wheel. That it was announced in the pouring rain was in many ways poetic and appropriate.

And therein lies the biggest challenge for both candidates. How do they properly engage, never mind excite, a disconnected public in this election?

Maybe Sir Keir is right that after 14 years of Tory rule he just needs to turn up and not mess up. But I think voters will always demand more. And that if he wants to be certain of a majority that will keep him in office long enough to make a real difference, he needs to show us who the real Sir Keir Starmer is.

Andy Coulson is the founder of strategic advisers Coulson Partners and host of the Crisis What Crisis podcast