Tory big guns' treatment of Rishi Sunak is starting to make me feel sorry for him – Aidan Smith

The Prime Minister seems increasingly isolated as he struggles on with little help from Conservative heavyweights

It’s officially recognised as the best-ever comedy put-down and has been appropriated and ripped off countless times… Mrs Merton to Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” So, vaguely in the quip’s spirit, I’m nominating “When did you first feel sorry for the richer-than-the-King Rishi Sunak?” as the most fatuous inquiry of the election campaign.

Except… except… I kind of do. I know, he doesn’t need our sympathy. He needs our votes but – nothing personal – won’t be getting mine. However, while he’s down, way down, in the polls I don’t have the impulse to kick him. This defeat – the Tories’ worst in history is predicted, with an emasculation if not a castration potentially leaving them with just 72 seats – is all on him. That’s how it looks.

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Where are the big guns, the Cabinet heavyweights? They’re leaving him to stew. On Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Mark Harper was the nominated fall-guy, shoved in front of the cameras to answer the unanswerable questions. Whenever I turn on my TV right now, it seems to be either him or David Davies. The Tories can’t even find three stooges for this thankless task. Why aren’t others helping Sunak share the load? Kuenssberg asked Harper this but he didn’t have an answer.

Rishi Sunak just before he lost the ball in a tackle with a training cone at Chesham United FC (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA)Rishi Sunak just before he lost the ball in a tackle with a training cone at Chesham United FC (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA)
Rishi Sunak just before he lost the ball in a tackle with a training cone at Chesham United FC (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA)
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Sheltering underground?

The reason of course is that those conspicuous by their absence either want Sunak’s job as leader – and I include Penny Mordaunt here, even though she’s participated in some of the televised debates – or they’re keen to ensure they’ll be part of the Tories’ new world order after July 4 and so are hiding in underground shelters desperately hoping they can emerge from the apocalypse with only superficial wounds.

Imagine how Sunak must feel, knocking his pan in on the campaign trail, knocking over football training cones in Euros-themed photo-ops, while party candidates we don’t know and probably never will are appearing on doorsteps shorn of Tory branding and happily posing for snaps with Nigel Farage?

The brand is simply too toxic. To paraphrase another comedy classic: “Don’t mention the economy. We crashed it once but I think we can get away with it. Don’t mention Liz Truss, or Boris, or Rishi… ”

It’s got so bad for Sunak, he’s had to deny he’ll quit before the election. He’s placing his faith in his faith, explaining that Hinduism teaches him to do his duty and carry on. He does not seek acknowledgement for steadying the Tory ship after the Trussing of the country’s finances, which of course Labour mention with every pronouncement. “I’m ultimately responsible for what I’m doing and no one else is,” he says. “It rests on my shoulders.” Few politicians talk about faith and Sunak should at least be admired for that.

A calamitous blunder

Absolutely no one admires him for skipping part of the 80th anniversary commemoration of D-Day, the most calamitous election blunder there’s ever been. He then went on to compound this in the ITV interview which was partly the reason for him leaving Normandy early.

Is it possible to sympathise with Sunak for having a casual remark uttered before the conversation properly began – that the commemoration “overran” – turned into one of the big reveals? He was apologising to his questioner for being late. In the same sentence, he said the ceremony had been extremely moving. Yet the treatment of the comment, with ITV blasting it out to promote the interview and subsequent news headlines, was suggestive of irritation on the part of the Prime Minister.

Beware the noises off. Maybe, when the vogue for interview preliminaries began, the intention was to show, say, big movie stars in brief informal moments as the subjects took their seats, were hooked up to microphones and had anti-glare powder applied. But the fad has percolated all the way down to political reporters hoping for some juicy asides and Sunak’s apparatchiks, if not the man himself, should have been alert to the dangers.

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The other big reveal was when he was pushed into a corner to describe how his life didn’t always involve personal wealth totalling £651 million. The “deprivation” he offered from childhood was the Sunak abode not having Sky TV. Really, what are these advisers playing at? Why didn’t they prepare him more rigorously for such a question – there’s an obsession with his family fortune so it’s always going to be mentioned – and scream a better answer in his earpiece? Of course, the best response would have been not to contrive one at all. If this comes up again, Rishi, my tip, offered for free, would be: “I’ve been a lucky boy in my life and it’s my hope that every child could enjoy good fortune.”

Starmer’s dad was a toolmaker

While we’re at it and for the sake of balance, who are the “experts” coaching Keir Starmer? He looked first of all stunned, then very quickly hurt, when the audience laughed at him during the Sky debate. The reason: he’d just announced, for the 273rd time: “My father was a toolmaker.” Whenever Starmer pops up on TV I start singing this deathly phrase to the tune of the old Tim Hardin standard “If I Were a Carpenter”.

Someone should have told him: “Down tools, stop saying it. Your old man’s job will be a mystery to most. This is the generation which barely knows how to use an Ikea-supplied wrench.”

Starmer of course is pursuing his Ming vase strategy. Now and again, craving excitement or just something different, I find myself shouting: “Just drop the bloody thing!” He’s been accused of being “robotic” but that applies to both men, programmed to repeat the same soundbites, day after interminable day. Whoever wins should be required to make it law that there will be no more six-week campaigns.

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