Tory internal battle erupts after defeat

Some of Rishi Sunak’s closest allies are facing angry backlash after being showered with honours by the former Prime Minister despite their apparent role in the “mad” decision to call a snap election.

In a sign of growing anger within the party over the decision to call the snap election – and concerns about the manner in which it was conducted – 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 “catastrophic defeat” which, according to several sources, was made worse by the decision to call the election.

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

“Somewhere between 1,300 and 1,500 people lost their jobs last night,” said a senior Tory source. “The person who helped decide that this was the right time to call the election, Liam Booth-Smith, was included in the dissolution tribute that same night.” Dowden was also criticised by one figure for supporting an election before playing a small role in the campaign himself. Another senior Tory adviser said simply: “Fuck that guy.”

Others defended the pair, saying it was “standard practice” for senior advisers and MPs to be rewarded. But the blame game has begun in earnest after a campaign criticised for repeated failures, from Sunak’s sodden election announcement to his decision to pull out of D-Day commemorations early. Insiders painted a picture of a desperate campaign in which Tory HQ regularly struggled to find ministers to go on air. “That’s why you saw the same names,” said one party source. “Poor Mel Stride.”

There was immediate anger over the decision to call the election early when the result was announced. It was claimed that the Cabinet, including Esther McVey, David Cameron and Chris Heaton-Harris, felt widespread discomfort about the decision. One source said that the Cabinet could not have influenced the decision “in any way, shape or form” because it was already underway. “There was too small a group of people – who know nothing about politics – advising the Prime Minister,” said one senior Tory. “These people have the audacity to think they are political geniuses.”

As frustration boiled over after the devastating result was announced, concerns were raised even in the hours after Sunak announced the snap election. Officials warned that hundreds of candidates were yet to be chosen, while many MPs and their teams had already booked holidays. Many candidates did not have the funding they needed to fight, meaning there was no real element of surprise.

“People were just getting their bearings for November – everyone,” 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 and the answer is no.” Indeed, some major donors – even those in the “leadership club” class who regularly give tens of thousands a year – did not contribute to the election campaign.

“It was madness from the start,” said a source familiar with the cabinet discussions about an early election. “The polls never really closed. Then there was a series of unforced errors in the campaign – and we put on these gimmicks like national service, which is not going to attract people at all.”

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

However, people close to Sunak insist they had little choice but to call the early poll, given the high number of households having to take out new mortgages each month. They said former prime minister Liz Truss was blamed “almost without exception” by households for their higher costs. Meanwhile, an autumn Downing Street campaign was expected to give Nigel Farage an even greater chance of exploiting the Channel crossings in the summer.

“If we had waited, Farage would have stayed in Clacton,” said one Sunak ally. “But instead of the focus on Farage for five weeks, it would have been four, five or six months. That’s in a context where there could be more cross-Channel boat crossings. We thought it was best to go early – and I still think it was the best option now.”

There is anger within Sunak’s team at pollsters they accuse of exaggerating Labour’s lead and suppressing key Tory messages. Labour’s big leads meant that an early “kitchen sink” strategy of pushing new policies and tax cuts into voters was largely ignored as irrelevant.

Sunak will get the f*ck for this. But in reality it’s the whole clown show that has overtaken us

“I’m a firm believer that we should ban polls during campaigns,” said one campaign manager. “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 after the manifesto was launched, it was clear and obvious that nothing was really working because nobody believed it was going to happen. That was a direct result of the fact that there was an MRP [multilevel regression and post-stratification] poll every day. In the end, Labour won by only 10 points.”

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 outcome. “A night of madness … Sunak will be left out in the cold for this,” said one. “But in reality it’s the whole clown show that has caught up with us.” Another former minister said the outcome was “not unexpected”, adding: “In reality this has been lost in 2022. The loss of trust and reputation for competence is baked in.”

As well as the opprobrium swirling within the Tory Party after the 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 showing “basic competence” might be enough to reassure people about the Tories, given the lack of enthusiasm for Labour.

“Labour is about to have the same problem as in 2019 – almost immediately after Brexit was done, our electoral coalition was gone. The thing that attracted voters – getting rid of the Tories – will be fulfilled immediately. How they will retain that voter base, when MPs are worried about reform or Gaza, is not clear. We simply have to show that we are not divided.

“It may sound bizarre and crazy because we just suffered a big election loss, but we are quite optimistic. There is immediate disappointment, but underneath the surface there is some optimism for the future. That is the nature of the volatility that we have seen.”

As the investigation got underway this weekend, it was already too much for a minister who lost his seat, who chose to disappear for the time being and not think about politics at all. “There will be many takes,” he said. “Almost all of them wrong.”

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