‘This is going to be a disaster’: inside the Tories’ chaotic election campaign

When rumours were ablaze that Rishi Sunak was about to call a snap election, one Conservative cabinet minister was asked by a colleague what was happening. “No idea,” he replied. “He’s either going to call a snap election today, name a date for the autumn or tell everyone that AI is really, really important.”

The cabinet – and most officials in Tory headquarters, which was disastrously underprepared – had been kept in the dark until almost the last moment. When Sunak did announce the election in Downing Street in the pouring rain, the move went down like a lead balloon with his colleagues.

“This is going to be a disaster,” one senior Conservative minister exclaimed to a Labour MP in an unguarded moment of shock. This minister went on to lose his safe seat in Thursday’s election.

Isaac Levido Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

A few days before the election announcement back in May, he had seen Isaac Levido, the Tory campaign chief, and the strategist made clear it would be the wrong move to go for a summer poll.

But Levido had been overridden – a move that his friends made no secret of in the media afterwards. So unexpected was the date that candidates had not yet been picked in 160 seats, and the party chair, Richard Holden, was casting around for a winnable constituency for himself.

The decision to go for July had been taken by Sunak himself and his core team – Liam Booth-Smith, his chief of staff, James Forsyth, his political secretary, Craig Williams, his parliamentary aide, and Claire Coutinho, his energy secretary and former adviser. The theory they alighted on was that “nobody was listening” and they had to call an election to make the public start paying attention. “We need to make the undecided voters notice us,” one No 10 insider said.

One of the strategies was to throw out eye-catching policies, such as the return of national service, in the hope that voters would give them a second chance and look to a Sunak-led future instead of a Liz Truss and Boris Johnson-tainted past.

Unfortunately, it only caught their own side off-guard. This was the start of a rupture at the centre of the Conservatives’ organising effort, although there had been longstanding tensions over strategy between Sunak and Levido dating back to summer last year.

From the moment the campaign was under way, Levido was the campaign director and in overall charge of the operation, with Booth-Smith ceding control to him and concentrating on work such as shaping speeches and the narrative.

The team sat in an open-plan office in Matthew Parker Street in Westminster, with Levido and his external staff, as well as party officials, alongside the Sunak-ites from No 10. A motivational campaign song, the Elvis vs JXL version of A Little Less Conversation, was blared out at opportune moments throughout the day, and “koala” awards were handed out to hard workers by Levido, an Australian and former protege of Lynton Crosby.

From the beginning, Tory insiders say there was a sense of blame inside Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) towards the aides from No 10 who joined them in the office – and who had made the timing decision. The sources also said CCHQ was severely lacking the presence of senior politicians in the room, with the campaign “essentially run by spads [special advisers]”. Only a hardcore of loyalists were left after some chose to re-enter the job market instead of volunteering to work on a doomed campaign.

Some insiders said the CCHQ officials and Sunakites from No 10 did not manage to fully gel into a well-run team. But one No 10 source disputed this, acknowledging that while Levido would have wanted more time to prepare, the campaign was integrated and ran as a “really professional unit”.

Few Conservative candidates appear to blame Levido for the campaign, believing him to be doing his best with Sunak’s poor position in the polls, a mood for change in the country, an absence of cabinet ministers – who were having to campaign to save their own seats – and a embarrassing legacy left by Truss.

However, it was Levido who helped push the idea that the Tories needed to win over Reform voters rather than swinging towards the centre ground, where elections are traditionally fought. One senior Tory figure said Levido had told him that Tory switchers to Labour were “gone and never coming back” and the party needed to concentrate on the right flank voters who were flirting with Reform. This strategy might have worked with Farage out of the race. But when the rightwinger returned as Reform leader, former Tory voters felt emboldened to opt for his full-throated anti-immigration policies rather than Sunak’s pale imitation.

Sunak himself cut a lonely figure throughout the election campaign. He worked without a united front of cabinet ministers around him, and even without many of his key aides by his side – in stark contrast to Keir Starmer who travelled with a senior entourage.

The prime minister had Zoom calls with his main aides throughout the day, starting with the first at about 5.30am. But he had only a tiny team with him, including a relatively junior aide helping him prepare for events, alongside his head of operations, Lisa Lovering. At times, he was joined by Forsyth, his friend and best man at his wedding, who became his political secretary in 2022.

Big beasts such as Michael Gove, James Cleverly and Jeremy Hunt stayed firmly in the background. Oliver Dowden, a close ally of the prime minister and his deputy, appeared “disfranchised and downbeat”, according to one person who spent time with him.

“Calling the campaign before CCHQ was ready was unforgivable,” says one Tory insider. “The second problem was on the manifesto front … they basically had the wrong kind of boldness. It was turning it up to 11 on things like national service being compulsory and they didn’t have a good tax offer.”

Sunak and some of his advisers were to blame for the disastrous decision to bring him back early from a D-day event – a move that enraged the public.

And that decision played directly into the hands of Farage. Behind the scenes, some senior Tories were urging Sunak to seek a rapprochement with the Reform leader and some kind of understanding – like Johnson struck in 2019.

The hard-right politician hinted at the idea in an interview with the Sun. However, Sunak flatly shut it down. Farage quickly rescinded his offer of talks and, scenting an opportunity, chose to make a comeback by standing for parliament.

skip past newsletter promotion

It was then not directly Sunak’s fault that his close aide, Craig Williams, was caught betting on the timing of the election. But there were questions about the prime minister’s political judgment in not having seen the peril in failing to shut down the scandal by cutting ties with him immediately after the Guardian revealed the scandal.

A failed gamble? How the Tory election campaign imploded – video

Levido is said by those in CCHQ to have kept calm during these periods of turmoil. “He just refused to dwell on things. He’d say, it’s happened and we’ve got to get on with things,” said one campaign insider.

There were moments mid-campaign when Sunak himself became irritable and depressed – including over D-day and the gambling scandal. Several times, he left huddles with reporters with no small talk after getting a hard time.

“Everyone was coming in at the crack of dawn and working really hard but all the broadcasters wanted to talk about was polls. The first four questions of every bloody interview was about the polls. Every day was a new poll showing we were 25 points behind,” a No 10 adviser said.

Rishi Sunak visits an Ocado distribution centre on Tuesday 2 July as part of the general election campaign. Photograph: Phil Noble/AP

By the final week, the prime minister and his advisers seemed resigned to the result, and he was even chirpy at points. He managed a wide smile at 4am while touring an Ocado warehouse in Bedfordshire – even while crisscrossing the home counties to visit seats with huge 20,000-plus majorities that no past leader would have needed to defend.

His bright mood was not shared by many candidates, who ranged from mentally checked-out to apoplectic. With two days to go, one senior Conservative figure let rip about how it was “the worst campaign of my lifetime” with no financial or practical support in marginal seats.

On the night of the election, one person inside CCHQ said there was a sense of relief that neither a Labour supermajority nor a Tory wipeout on the scale of Canada in 1993 transpired – along with regret about the loss of 200-plus seats.

“It felt like there was still a foundation for us to come back in the future. It was not a result that would take 25 years to recover from. People were more bullish about things at 10.30pm than they were at 9.30pm,” the adviser said. “The [10pm] exit poll was the most positive poll we had for about five weeks.”

Sunak himself was in his Yorkshire constituency for the result but travelled down to London in the morning, addressing the team at CCHQ at about 8am. “He did a speech where he just took responsibility for all things. He said: ‘This is on me, this is not on any of you, you all worked your socks off and should be incredibly proud of what you’ve done.’ He went round the room and thanked people individually.”

Sunak’s advisers insist the timing of the election would not have made a difference to the result – with people coming off fixed rate mortgages, and more small boats likely to arrive over the summer.

Instead, they date the loss of the election much further back – to the era of Truss. In one introspective moment in the final week, the prime minister appeared to point the finger in his predecessor’s direction too, as he said he could only “play the cards I’m dealt” and it was not as if he had been given four aces.

One No 10 aide said: “Things took a dive for us in October 2022. That was the moment it got baked in. We did what we could to try and reverse things. But when the hordes are coming over the battlements, there’s only so much you can do.”

The Guardian

Leave a Reply