Is Sunak’s election campaign the worst in history?

Rishi Sunak has had a torrid start to the campaign  (AP)
Rishi Sunak has had a torrid start to the campaign (AP)

He is soaked in Downing Street on his launch, drowned out by triumphant Blair’s anthem, his MPs are fleeing the battlefield and he visits a Titanic museum. When you think things cannot get worse for Rishi Sunak, they do. Is this the worst start to an election campaign in history?

Those with a distant memory can recall Michael Foot’s 1983 election campaign for Labour with the manifesto described by the late Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history”. But what went down in folklore as the worst ever election campaign – one which nearly saw the destruction of Labour – may have found its match in catastrophic miscalculations and farce.

There are a number of people apparently giving Mr Sunak advice – but whoever was responsible for getting the prime minister to visit Belfast’s Titanic Quarter should be sacked already. If the image of an unsinkable ship holed by an iceberg and sinking inexorably to the bottom of a deep blue ocean is not a metaphor for what is happening to the Tories before our eyes, then nothing is.

Sunak jets off to campaign (Pool/AFP via Getty)
Sunak jets off to campaign (Pool/AFP via Getty)

Of course, the Titanic infamously did not have enough lifeboats for the passengers to escape. This may explain why so many Conservative MPs have declined to board Mr Sunak’s election campaign ship and decided not to run again. The fact that as of last night 78 of them have decided to quit is a shocking indictment of the party.

Michael Gove doing his best impression of a rat abandoning the sinking ship yesterday told a story in itself. It takes a special kind of contempt for a leader to abandon him without warning when he is fighting for his political life and that of the party.

In the three days since the election was called, 10 Tory MPs have given up and said they will not run. The fight has ebbed out of the party if it was ever there at all.

Previous election campaigns have had their hiccups. Both Labour and the Conservative manifesto launches in 2017 tried to outdo one another in calamity. Gordon Brown’s sullen performances in the TV debates in 2010 were a low point. John Prescott actually hitting a voter in 2001 was extraordinary. Neil Kinnock’s appalling Sheffield rally proved terminal in 1992.

But it is hard to think of a single election campaign where almost every move has been so misjudged.

The prime minister’s chief advisers are consultant strategist Isaac Levido (a man who has quietly been recruiting Labour people to his Fleetwood company); chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith (a protege of Dominic Cummings); deputy chief of staff Will Tanner (currently busy trying to be selected for Stratford-upon-Avon); political secretary and best pal James Forsyth; head of strategy Jamie Njoku-Goodwin; party chairman Richard Holden (trying to find a seat as his own is being abolished); and director of communications Nerissa Chesterfield.

You would have thought that one of these people would have had the gumption to tell Mr Sunak that standing in the rain alone outside Downing Street in the pouring rain would not provide the best of starts. Or perhaps mentioned that football banter about the Euros was not the best idea in Wales where the team failed to qualify. Or even seen the issue with the Titanic museum. Or realised planting a Tory councillor in a high-vis jacket might get found out.

No one appears to have told Rishi Sunak that launching his campaign in pouring rain would be a bad idea (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
No one appears to have told Rishi Sunak that launching his campaign in pouring rain would be a bad idea (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

This is before we get to the fact that apparently nobody had warned party headquarters (CCHQ) that there might be an election, meaning that they still had to find almost 200 candidates in the next few days. It says a lot that the party chairman (Richard Holden MP) is supposed to coordinate the campaign but still does not have a seat.

The problem is that at an average poll gap of 21 points behind Labour, there was no room for error for the Tories or Mr Sunak. Instead, we have witnessed a series of gaffes and desperately poor strategy. Not surprisingly the Techne weekly tracker suggests that that gap has grown even more since the election was called.

There are five-and-a-half weeks more of this to go. Some Tory MPs are bravely standing and fighting. For them, and for the good of his party, Mr Sunak and his top team need to turn things around quickly. If not the apocalyptic predictions of fewer than the 156 Tory MPs returned in 1906 (the worst in the party’s 346-year history) may actually come true.