‘The entire clown show caught up with us’: Tory infighting erupts after defeat

Some of Rishi Sunak’s closest allies are facing an angry backlash after being awarded honours by the former prime minister, despite their apparent role in the “insane” decision to call an early election.

In a sign of the growing anger within the party ranks over the decision to call the snap poll – as well as alarm over the way it was conducted – the former deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden and chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith were singled out by angry candidates and aides for their role in the “cataclysmic defeat” that several sources claimed had been made worse by the early election decision.

Booth-Smith was handed a peerage in the dissolution honours list, while Dowden was given a knighthood. Both are said to have backed an early election, with Dowden described as particularly influential.

“Somewhere between 1,300 to 1,500 people lost their jobs last night,” said one senior Tory source. “The person who helped decide that this was the right time to do the election, Liam Booth-Smith, was included in the dissolution honours on the same night.” Dowden was also criticised by one figure for backing an election before playing little part in the election campaign itself. Another senior Tory adviser said simply: “Fuck that guy.”

Others defended the pair, stating it was “standard practice” for senior advisers and MPs to be rewarded. However, the blame game has started in earnest after a campaign that was criticised for repeated errors, from Sunak’s rain-soaked election announcement to his decision to leave D-day commemorations early. Insiders painted a picture of a despairing campaign in which the Tory HQ regularly struggled to find ministers to take to the airwaves. “That’s why you saw the same names,” said one party source. “Poor Mel Stride.”

There was an immediate outpouring of anger at the decision to call the election early once the result became clear. It included claims of widespread unease at the decision from across the cabinet, including Esther McVey, David Cameron and Chris Heaton-Harris. One source said the cabinet had been unable to influence the decision “in any way, shape or form”, as it had already been set in train. “There was too narrow a group of people – who don’t know anything about politics – advising the prime minister,” said one senior Tory. “These people have the temerity to think they’re political geniuses.”

While frustration boiled over after the dire result emerged, concerns were raised even in the hours after Sunak called the snap election. Officials warned that hundreds of candidates still had to be picked, while many MPs and their teams had already booked holidays. Plenty of candidates lacked the funds they needed to fight, meaning they were left with no real element of surprise.

‘Poor Mel’: Mel Stride facing the media yet again in June. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Getty Images

“People had just oriented themselves towards November – everybody,” said a senior Tory source. “MPs, special advisers, ministers, campaign teams. Ask a random sample of MPs whether they had £20,000 in their campaign bank account, the answer is no.” In fact, some major donors – even those among the “leader’s club” class who regularly donate tens of thousands a year – did not chip in for the election effort.

“It was madness from the beginning,” said a source familiar with the cabinet discussions on an early election. “The polls had never really narrowed. Then there was a series of unforced errors in the campaign – and we were putting up these gimmicks like national service, which is not really going to attract people whatsoever.”

Another said that the lack of preparation led to the “mass exodus” of senior MPs, leaving the party with the task of finding new candidates, while losing the electoral boost that comes with incumbency. They also pointed to party chairman Richard Holden’s “undignified” decision to install himself into a seat 200 miles away from his abolished constituency as the ultimate example of a party caught on the hop.

Figures close to Sunak, however, remain adamant that they had little choice but to call the early poll, because of the high numbers of households that were having to remortgage each month. They said former prime minister Liz Truss was blamed “pretty much without exception” by householders for their higher costs. Meanwhile, an autumn campaign was seen in Downing Street as likely to hand Nigel Farage an even greater chance to exploit Channel crossings over the summer.

“If we’d have waited, Farage would have stood in Clacton,” said one Sunak ally. “But instead of the focus on Farage happening for five weeks, it would have been for four, five or six months. That’s in a context where you potentially have further boat crossings coming across the Channel. We thought it was best to go early – and I still think it was the best option now.”

Among Sunak’s team, there is fury at pollsters they accuse of overstating Labour’s lead and stopping key Tory messages from landing. Big Labour leads meant that an early “kitchen-sink strategy” of throwing new policies and tax cuts at voters was largely ignored as irrelevant.

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“I’m convinced we should ban polls during campaigns,” said one campaign figure. “The reason we had to start talking about a supermajority was because in all our research, people just didn’t believe we were going to win. Three weeks out after the manifesto launch, it became evident and clear that nothing was really working because no one believed it would happen. That was a direct result of there being an MRP [multilevel regression and post-stratification] poll every day. Labour only won by 10 points in the end.”

But several senior Tories – even those who blamed Sunak for the decision to call a snap election – suggested the timing had made little difference to the result. “An insane night … Sunak will be hung out to dry for this,” said one. “But in reality, it’s the entire clown show that’s caught up with us.” Another former minister said the result was “not unexpected”, adding: “In reality this was lost in 2022. The loss of trust and reputation for competence has become ingrained.”

As well as the opprobrium flying around inside the Tory party after its defeat, some of those leaving Downing Street also believe they can sow the seeds of an early recovery – by learning from Keir Starmer. Rather than a major shift to the left or right, one said that just demonstrating “basic competence” could be enough to reassure people about the Tories, given the lack of enthusiasm for Labour.

“Labour is about to hit the same problem we had in 2019 – almost immediately after Brexit was delivered, our electoral coalition was no more. The thing that has brought voters in – getting rid of the Tories – will have been fulfilled immediately. How they maintain that voter base, when MPs are worried about Reform or Gaza, is not clear. We have to just show we’re not divided.

“It probably sounds bizarre and mad because we’ve just suffered a big election loss, but we’re quite optimistic. There is immediate disappointment, but under the surface, there is some optimism for the future. That’s the nature of the volatility we’ve seen.”

As the inquest gathered pace this weekend, it was all already too much for one minister who lost their seat, who was opting to disappear for the time being and not think about politics at all. “There will be lots of takes,” he said. “Almost all wrong.”

The Guardian