Britain’s Sunak Disses D-Day at His, and His Party’s, Peril

The fallout after a major gaffe in the run-up to a snap election is another sign of seismic shifts coming in Europe’s political map.

AP
Prime Minister Sunak visits the Melksham Town F.C. for a Conservative general election campaign event at Melksham, England, June 7, 2024. AP

Behind most every headline there is a story less told that eventually risks eclipsing it — consider this from the Daily Mail on June 6:  “As veterans move the Queen to tears at D-Day ceremony, King pays emotional tribute.” That was paired with a color picture of the Queen consort in Normandy and in tears. The Times of London ran the same photo above the headline, “Royals lead emotional D-Day tributes.” But where on earth was Rishi Sunak?

True, the embattled British prime minister had ventured across the English Channel to attend some of the events organized to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy. But he split the day before arguably the biggest international event at Omaha Beach, in order to do a television interview back in Britain. 

Needless to say, that decision did not go down well — neither in the British press nor within the ranks of his own floundering Conservative party. 

Because though the British are responsible for pesky things like serially undercooked bacon and the Spice Girls, one thing they take extremely seriously is paying proper tribute to World War II veterans, and they do not suffer fools gladly. 

One might think that it would fall to Mr. Sunak’s arch-nemesis, the mild-mannered Labor leader, Sir Keir Starmer, to remind Mr. Sunak that fatuity is no great asset when a potentially shape-shifting snap election is less than a month away. As it happens that memo came courtesy of his fellow Tory and leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt. 

During a debate televised on the BCC Friday night, Ms. Mordaunt turned the screws on Mr. Sunak by stating that it was “completely wrong” for the prime minister to slip out of the D-Day commemorations early. She repeated that he was wrong to do so no fewer than three times, which could be read as a sign that is ready to toss her hat in the ring to lead the Tories after July if Mr. Starmer’s Labor party prevails in the election on July 4. 

It is widely expected to do so. Not only have the Conservatives fallen out of favor after 14 years in government, but Mr. Sunak is increasingly perceived as not only tone-deaf but almost completely out of touch with the daily struggles of financially pinched ordinary Britons. 

At just 44 years old, he is also of a generation for whom World War II is so distant as to be irrelevant — a dangerous misjudgment for a British politician when Ms. Mordaunt added to her remarks, “I’m from Portsmouth. I’ve also been defense secretary. And my wish at the end of this week is that all veterans feel completely treasured.”

She acknowledged that the prime minister had apologized for skipping out on the ceremony, but to most people watching it felt more like damning with faint praise. 

Wolves less lovely than the telegenic Ms. Mordaunt were quick to close in on the hapless Mr. Sunak, whom last month a columnist in the Guardian described as “a man with so little-worth, he’s driven to seek constant validation from others.” 

The head of the Scottish National Party at Westminster, Stephen Flynn, said, “A prime minister who puts his own political career before public service is no prime minister at all,” and “a prime minister who puts his own political career before Normandy war veterans is no prime minister at all.”

The knives were out on the right side as well as the left. The Reform UK leader, Nigel Farage, said of Mr. Sunak that “if his instinct was the same as the British people, he would never have contemplated for a moment not being there for the big international celebration and it shows how disconnected he is with the people of this country.” Mr. Farage labeled him “unpatriotic” and called his premature departure from France a “complete and utter disgrace.”

This level of vitriol is so high one might be forgiven for thinking the personal animus toward Mr. Sunak is starting to outweigh the Tories’ dread before the prospect of a new Labor government. That may or may not be the case, but there is a growing feeling in Britain that Mr. Sunak is now in the final days of steering a sinking ship. 

At the same time, the British press is slowly warming up to Mr. Starmer: “Keir Royale,” the headline of an interview with “the man set to be Prime Minister” reads in the new edition of Britain’s City A.M. magazine. 

If the expected shift to left from right is set to shake up the political landscape in Britain, across the channel the opposite is true. European Union citizens are going to the polls this weekend and Monday to vote in parliamentary elections that are widely tipped to hand a considerable amount of newfound support to right-of-center political parties. 

This is a process that has been developing for quite some time, and it will not stop once the polls close. Au contraire: It will likely accelerate. There is a whole range of highly charged and divisive issues at stake, including the foundering European economy and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Count on both issues to be weaponized against the battered ranks of Europe’s liberals like President Macron, who this week Marine Le Pen accused of “instrumentalizing the Ukraine war to the point of nausea” to gain political advantage. 

Those are fighting words, and Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally is spoiling for a fight that aims to knock Mr. Macron right off his perch. From London to Paris and across this troubled continent, the gloves are coming off, and it is going to be one wild ride.


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