A challenging week for the Conservative Party

Enter Nigel Farage

It would be an understatement to call last week a bad one for Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives. It started with Nigel Farage announcing that he would indeed be standing as an MP (for Clacton) and was assuming the leadership of the Reform UK. The Conservatives have been worried about Reform picking up support from its right for some time. News that Farage, who has huge media clout, was taking over the party’s leadership was a big blow to an already challenging campaign.

Even more worrying from a Conservative perspective is the prospect that Farage might actually win a seat in Westminster, something he has failed to do on seven previous attempts. Could it be that in Clacton, the belle of the Essex coast, he might just break his duck? The thought of him sitting in Parliament, either drawing Conservatives from the right of the party to Reform, or, worse still, becoming a Conservative himself and vying for the leadership of the party is horrifying many Conservatives. Those in the centre and left of the party worry that this would be a catalyst for the breakup of their party. Their concern is not necessarily misplaced. Indeed only this weekend, Farage unveiled a six-year “masterplan to reshape politics” and asserted that he would form the “real opposition”. This morning Suella Braverman is openly suggesting that the Conservative embrace him. Much will rest on the good burghers of Clacton.

Sunak’s tax claim

On Tuesday, Sunak faced Keir Starmer in the first TV debate of the campaign. Both men were tetchy, and the format didn’t make for a proper exchange of views. Starmer was probably a little weaker on the night, failing to rebut swiftly Sunak’s repeated claim that the Labour Party would increase taxes by £2,000, a figure he claimed had been calculated by civil servants. Sunak will have gone to bed delighted that he managed to land that punch. By the morning, though, the claim was unravelling, not just because Labour had got its act together but because the most senior civil servant at the Treasury took the very unusual step of publicly distancing himself and his officials from the claims . This is as close as a public servant will come to calling their political paymasters a liar. All very unedifying.

D-Day disaster

Thursday should have been a day off politics as we marked the 80th anniversary of the   D-Day landings, poignant not just because this will almost certainly be the last time the veterans of the event will be able to attend the commemoration, but because it was being marked in the shadow of another land war being fought in Europe. Rather than take the day to let the accusations of dishonesty die down, Sunak decided to leave Normandy early for a TV interview to defend the £2,000 tax rise claim. It was a breathtaking lack of judgment. Disrespecting veterans was clearly the worst offence, but by absenting himself from the international events Sunak conceded the world stage to Starmer.

Despite his apology, Sunak has been roundly condemned, including by his own Cabinet colleague Penny Mordant on the second TV debate on Friday evening.  Privately the criticism he has faced from his own colleagues has been brutal, donors are said to be furious, and reports from those Conservative activists braving the doorstep this weekend indicate that its not going down well with the voting public.

Over to the manifestos 

It is hard to know how Sunak and the Conservatives can come back from a week like that. They will be hoping that the publication of their manifesto, expected Tuesday, will provide a fresh opportunity to appeal to their core supporters to retain as many MPs as possible, beginning with a focus on crime and sentencing today. It looks increasingly the case that they would need a serious Labour misstep to get them back in the game.

It is not impossible that Labour will blunder. Their immediate and real worry is that its lead in the polls will encourage its potential supporters that they need not vote at all or that they could vote for another party and still get a Labour government. It will seek to spend the remainder of the campaign dispelling this view. The party will be hoping that its manifesto, due to be unveiled on Thursday, will reassure voters that it will bring stability, change and reform while not increasing taxes. Its strategy will focus on the main issues, avoid doing or saying anything that will alarm voters and leave the Conservatives to implode.