Tory infighting breaks out after victory

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

In a sign of growing anger within the party’s ranks over the decision to call the snap poll – as well as dismay at the way it was carried out – former deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden and chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith was cited by angry candidates and supporters for his role in the “cataclysmic victory” which some sources claimed was worse at the early election decision.

Booth-Smith was awarded a peerage in the dissolution honors list, and Dowden was knighted. Both are said to have supported an early election, and Dowden was said to be very influential.

“Between 1,300 and 1,500 people lost their jobs last night,” said a senior Tory source. “Liam Booth-Smith, who helped decide that this was the right time to hold the election, was included in the dissolution honors on the same night.” One person also criticized Dowden for supporting an election before taking a small part in the election campaign itself. A senior Tory adviser said simply: “Fuck that guy.”

Others defended the pair, saying it was “standard practice” to reward senior advisers and BP. However, the blame has really started after a campaign has been criticized for repeated errors, from Sunak’s rain-soaked election announcement to his decision to leave the D-day memorial early. Insiders painted a picture of a desperate campaign in which 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 immediate anger at the decision to call the election early when the result was clear. It included claims of widespread dismay at the decision from across the cabinet, including Esther McVey, David Cameron and Chris Heaton-Harris. One source said the cabinet was unable to influence the decision “in any way, shape or form”, as it was already underway. “The prime minister was being advised by a very narrow group of people – who know nothing about politics,” said one senior Tory. “These people have the temerity to think they are political geniuses.”

Although frustration died down after the shocking result emerged, concerns were raised even in the hours after Sunak called the snap election. Officials warned that hundreds of candidates were yet to be selected, and that many MPs and their staff had already booked holidays. Many candidates lacked the money they needed to fight, which meant they were left with no real surprises.

“People were just focused on November – everyone,” said a senior Tory source. “MPs, special advisers, ministers, campaign teams. Ask a random sample of MPs if they had £20,000 in their campaign bank account, the answer is no.” In fact, some big donors – even those among the “leader” class who regularly donate thousands a year – were not involved in the election effort.

“It was madness from the start,” said a source familiar with the cabinet’s discussions on an early election. “The polls haven’t really narrowed. Then there was a series of unnecessary errors in the campaign – and we were putting up these gimmicks like a national service, which is not really going to attract people at all.”

Another said the “mass exodus” of senior MPs was due to a lack of preparation, leaving the party tasked with finding new candidates, while at the same time losing the electoral boost that comes with the dominance. They also pointed to party chairman Richard Holden’s “unpopular” decision to install himself in a seat 200 miles away from his elimination constituency as the ultimate example of a party caught on the ale.

Figures close to Sunak are certain, however, that they had little choice but to call the poll early, due to the high number of households that had to remortgage each month. They said householders “almost without exception” blamed former prime minister Liz Truss for their higher costs. Meanwhile, the autumn campaign in Downing Street was seen to give Nigel Farage an even better chance to take advantage of Channel crossings over the summer.

“If we had waited, Farage would have been standing in Clacton,” said one Sunak ally. “But rather than the focus on Farage being on for five weeks, it would be for four, five or six months. That’s in a context where you could have more boat crossings coming across the English Channel. We thought it would be best to go early – and I think it’s the best option now.”

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

Sunak will be hung out to dry for this. But really, it’s the whole clown show that’s caught us

“I’m sure we should ban polls during a campaign,” said one campaign figure. “The reason we had to start talking about a supermajority was because in all our research people believed we had won. Three weeks out from the launch of the proclamation, it was clear and obvious that nothing was really working because no one believed it would happen. That was a direct result of the existence of MRP [multilevel regression and post-stratification] poll every day. Labor ended up winning by just 10 points.”

But some Elders – even those who blamed Sunak for the decision to call an election – suggested that the timing made little difference to the outcome. “Bright night… Sunak will be hung out to dry for this,” said one of them. “But really, it’s the whole clown show we’re caught up in.” Another former minister said the result was not “unexpected”, adding: “This has really been lost in 2022. The loss of confidence and reputation for competence has become overwhelming.”

As well as the opprobrium flying around within the Tory party following his victory, some of those leaving Downing Street believe they can sow the seeds of an early recovery – by learning from Keir Starmer. Rather than a big shift left or right, one said a demonstration of “basic competence” might be enough to reassure people about the Tories, given the lack of enthusiasm for Labour.

“Labour is about to face the same problem we faced in 2019 – almost immediately after Brexit was delivered, our electoral coalition no longer existed. What the voters brought in – get rid of the Tories – will be fulfilled immediately. It is not clear how they maintain that voter base, when MPs are concerned about Reform or Gaza. We must show that we are not divided.

“It probably looks strange and mad because we have suffered a big loss after the election, but we are hopeful. There is immediate disappointment, but beneath the surface, there is some hope for the future. That’s the nature of the volatility we’ve seen.”

As the inquest intensified this weekend, it was already too much for one minister who lost his seat, who was choosing to leave for the time being and not think about politics at all. “There will be a lot of things,” he said. “Almost everything is wrong.”

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