Sat, 27 August 2022 at 6:10 pm
It was when Rishi Sunak mentioned California for the third time in less than 10 minutes that his campaign team realised it was all over.
On stage at the Conservative leadership hustings in Eastbourne on Aug 5, Mr Sunak answered a question about the career he would choose as a young graduate by reflecting on the “culture” of enterprise he saw while living on the West Coast between 2004 and 2006.
“I think it’s incredibly inspiring and empowering,” he said. “If I was a young person, I’d want to go and do something like that.”
But back at his campaign headquarters in Holborn, Central London, his strategists were far from inspired.
Staff felt his focus on California showed he was out of touch and summed up his failure to win over grassroots Tory members as polls showed members backing Liz Truss by more than two to one.
“People started to say that it wasn’t going to happen now and he wasn’t connecting with voters in the room,” a source on the campaign told The Telegraph.
“He kept talking about California and tech. It became an open secret within the campaign that he wasn’t going to win. That hustings was the point things really took a turn as everyone started to realise that.”
It was a rapid decline from the beginning of the contest, when Tory MPs had voted Mr Sunak their preferred candidate in all five parliamentary ballots.
As he became one of the final two candidates on July 20, “Ready for Rishi” staff felt they were on the right side of history by taking on the “orthodoxy” of Ms Truss’s campaign, run by Mark Fulbrook, the veteran strategist.
Some even took to comparing themselves to the heroes from Mr Sunak’s favourite film franchise, Star Wars.
“Everyone went around saying: ‘We are the Rebel Alliance’,” one recalled, comparing the former chancellor’s rival to the evil Galactic Empire.
“It’s like: ‘We aren’t going up against Truss, we’re going up against Downing Street and Boris too.’ She has taken everyone from the establishment. We are the good guys here.”
But as the campaign committed a series of strategic errors, Mr Sunak’s blockbuster effect began to wear off. Now he stands more than 30 points behind in the polls and is widely expected to lose.
MPs who spoke to The Telegraph point to his decision to pledge a cut to VAT on energy bills on July 27 – just weeks after ruling that out while at the Treasury – as an example of his failure to set a clear narrative to Tory members at the start of the campaign.
The move was interpreted as a U-turn that showed Mr Sunak was not serious about his pledge to remain fiscally hawkish, even in the face of the cost of living crisis.
“His whole campaign was built on not cutting taxes until the time is right, and now he was saying: ‘Lo and behold, I have declared the moment right,’” said one MP. “It’s like, God, what are you thinking? You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
It prompted concern about a forthcoming stunt in which a mocked-up children’s picture book and audiobook entitled “Liz Truss’s fantasy economy plan” were to be distributed to Westminster journalists.
Despite being designed and ready for production, the books were cancelled amid the feeling that Mr Sunak’s own economic credentials were no longer beyond reproach.
Other internal policy U-turns followed. Three days later, on July 30, a planned “anti-woke” speech pledging a review of the Equality Act was sent to newspapers in advance and written up for the next day’s editions before being quietly cancelled in the morning.
The speech’s absence did not make headlines, but it caused consternation in Mr Sunak’s team.
“Nobody knew what was happening any more, on the ground or in HQ,” said one frustrated staffer. “If you were really to boil it down and say what went wrong, it was the communication.”
Three weeks later, another crowd-pleasing policy, to raise the national speed limit to 80mph, was scrapped before being announced in a last-minute change to the Number 10-style “grid” governing the communications plan.
Some chalk these failures up to Mr Sunak’s staff, many of whom have never worked on a leadership campaign.
The campaign’s day-to-day operations are run by two of his closest Treasury advisers, Liam Booth-Smith and Rupert Yorke, with the press handled by Nerissa Chesterfield, his former departmental comms chief, and policy by James Nation, a former special adviser.
The whole operation is chaired by one of Mr Sunak’s closest allies, Oliver Dowden, who presided over four major by-election losses as the Conservative Party chairman.
The team is close, with Mr Booth-Smith handing out Kinder Eggs and pairs of socks as prizes to the hardest working activists and hosting colleagues for dinner parties at his home.
“It’s a very tight-knit team and I think that’s part of the reason he hasn’t done very well,” said one observer. “The people who were around him when things started to go wrong are still the people who are in the room.”
Presented with claims that Mr Sunak has run a Westminster-centric campaign, his team point to the fact he has turned up to many more constituency associations than Ms Truss, running a punishing schedule of visits and local media appearances.
Travelling by car (rather than by helicopter, as his rival sometimes has), sweet-toothed Mr Sunak is often spotted by his staff snacking on a bag of Revels. A recent photo showed him curled up, his head resting on a backpack, as he napped between engagements.
But despite the glad-handing of members, the self-described tech fan cannot shake the accusation he is “addicted to Twitter” and has failed to connect with the Conservative Party’s broad base of largely older members.
One Sunak-backing MP said his team have “played to the cliched idea of what the membership is”, putting together a campaign of policy ideas that are the “worst of all possible worlds”.
Recalling one pledge to automatically lock up repeat offenders for an extra year, the MP added: “That’s why you end up proposing bonkers things like life sentences for parking on a double yellow line, or whatever his insane criminal justice policy was.”
A week before the end of the campaign, those close to Mr Sunak argue that he still has a chance of winning.
Loyalists point to the fact that turnout is expected to be low, around 65 per cent, and question the methodology of polls that consistently show Ms Truss more than 30 points ahead.
One suggested Friday’s energy bills announcement would benefit the former chancellor, who is rated by many members for his response to the Covid crisis.
“The energy price thing is such a dominant feature that whatever was discussed earlier on in the campaign is somewhat irrelevant now,” said the Sunak loyalist.
But in Westminster, one would now be hard-pressed to find someone willing to put money on Mr Sunak to be the next prime minister.
“Rishi has disappointed at almost every opportunity and Liz has got better and better,” said one glum supporter, who is unlikely to receive a ministerial job after Sep 5, when the leadership winner is announced.
“I feel like I probably did back the person I was right to back, even if it’s not in my own naked self-interest. But then you like to think that politicians do what’s right, even if it’s not in their own naked self-interest. Occasionally it turns out to be true.”