The Observer view on D-day furore: Rishi Sunak is driving Tories over an electoral cliff

In World

‘As we gather here today, it is not just to honour those who showed such remarkable bravery on that day … it’s to listen to the echoes of their voices, to hear them, because they are summoning us.” So President Joe Biden movingly told the international D-day commemoration ceremony at Omaha beach in Normandy on Thursday. But Rishi Sunak was not there to listen alongside Britain’s wartime allies. Instead, he had departed France after taking part in the British commemoration earlier in the day, returning to the UK to do an election interview with ITV, leaving the foreign secretary, Lord Cameron, to represent Britain in his place.

This will prove to be a defining moment of this general election campaign, because it tells us something fundamental about the man who, having been chosen to lead the country by his party a year and a half ago, is for the first time seeking a mandate from the electorate.

Just as the liberal democracies again face a growing threat – this time from enemies of freedom like Vladimir Putin – the prime minister should have been there with the leaders of the US, France and Germany to remember the bravery of those who helped rescue Europe from fascism 80 years ago. It is likely to be the last significant anniversary commemorations attended by survivors of D-day. That Sunak did not understand its significance, or the snub that his failure to attend would represent, casts a dark shadow on his appeal to voters to trust him to continue leading the country.

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It was the worst moment of what has been a terrible campaign for the Conservatives. We welcome the fact that Sunak chose not to delay calling the election – the country needs the chance to pass judgment on a bleak era. Everywhere you look, there are signs that 14 years of Conservative government have changed Britain for the worse: from the rising levels of child poverty as Tory chancellors have deployed the tax-benefit system to redistribute from poor families with children to the more affluent; to the chronic underfunding of the NHS that has resulted in record waiting lists; to the laggard growth that has been further suppressed by a hard Brexit. And the first two weeks of campaigning have exposed the Conservatives for what they are: a party infected by populism that has run out of ideas to make the country better and so has to scrabble for desperate ploys to make the headlines, such as a scheme to force hard-pressed 18-year-olds to give up one weekend in four to do compulsory community service, and resort to bare-faced lies about imaginary Labour tax plans.

The polls suggest that this judgment will be punishing for the Conservatives: if anything, Labour’s huge poll lead is widening. A monumental defeat on 4 July is exactly what the Conservatives deserve. They have taken an unenviable set of circumstances – a global financial crisis, a pandemic and increasing levels of conflict and insecurity – and through bad political decisions have further worsened Britain’s prospects. The party’s ideological obsession with Brexit has played a key role in its decline. By holding a referendum to satisfy the demands of the right of his party, David Cameron fed the beast. It was by way of Brexit – first the campaign to leave the EU, then the internal party fight to impose a hard Brexit on the country, then the 2019 election campaign – that the party journeyed away from conservatism towards populism, telling voters that Brexit would solve all of Britain’s long-term structural issues instead of making people poorer. It was via Brexit that the party arrived at Boris Johnson as prime minister, one of the worst leaders the country has ever seen. Brexit consumed the Conservatives, leaving a party that does not know what it stands for and has nothing to offer.

Nigel Farage’s decision to assume the leadership of Reform UK and stand in Clacton will make the Conservative defeat worse than it would otherwise have been; unlike in 2019, Reform is standing candidates in Conservative-held seats and will probably split the vote on the right, boosting the size of a Labour majority. If the Conservative defeat is as bad as some are predicting, Tory MPs will face an existential choice. They can start to repair the damage that Brexit has done not just to the country but their party by trying to reconnect with the voters whose trust they have lost and rebuilding a form of conservatism suitable for the 2020s. Or they can continue along the path they have travelled since 2014 that has brought them to where they are today, by trying to ape Reform UK with anti-immigration rhetoric. That way electoral oblivion lies, but there is every chance that a hard-right rump from the parliamentary party and membership pushes them in that direction, alienating the electorate further.

To those on the centre-left of British politics, the temptation might be to shrug and say “so what?” But a healthy democracy depends on the interplay between government and opposition: it would not be good, in the long term, for a Labour government with a large majority to escape serious scrutiny because the principal opposition party has shifted further to the right and is racked by internal division. It will be incumbent on those Tories who believe they can one day again be a party of government by rebuilding the tradition of centre-ground conservatism to try to stop their party hurtling off the rails in the meantime.

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