The Insider

Sunak’s D-Day blunder shows his political incompetence

At a crucial moment for European unity, Sunak's early departure was more than a gaffe

June 12, 2024
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Rishi Sunak’s D-Day disaster in Normandy last week, the defining moment in this dismal Tory funeral of an election, summed up so much that has gone wrong since the Brexit referendum of 2016.

For it turns out that Sunak’s absence from the main commemoration event with Biden, Macron and Scholz wasn’t a misguided slip caused by competing campaign pressures. As by he said by way of a defence when making his later apology, he had never intended to be present at what Number 10 officials revealingly dubbed the “French event.” His decision to leave Normandy after a commemoration at the British D-Day memorial near Gold Beach had been taken weeks ago, long before the election was called.

From the outset the “French event” had been considered as “optional,” said the Number 10 official, as if they were talking about a trip to the shops, rather than one of the most symbolic gatherings of western leaders in this decade—and the last with veterans of the Normandy landings of 80 years ago. Part of the symbolism was the presence of Ukraine’s leader, Zelensky, and equally the absence of Ukraine’s invader, Putin. Stalin was an uneasy ally against Hitler in 1944 and immediately after the defeat of Germany became a threat to European freedom and democracy. Putin is in the same position today. 

Putin’s absence last week was enforced, Sunak’s voluntary. They were each in their way damning of their relationship with democratic Europe. 

What made the unthinkable thinkable in Sunak’s decision-making?

Sunak doesn’t much like foreign affairs, and he puts continental Europe firmly in the “foreign” box. Same goes for Brexit, which is part of the reason he brought David Cameron back. He views most European meetings and travel as a distraction, although a distraction from quite what isn’t clear since he hasn’t notably gripped the domestic. It is time for a prime minister who actually does the job of representing Britain abroad, particularly Europe. And one who could talk positively about trade and travel between Britain and Europe. 

Particularly chronic is the Brexit notion that engagement with France and Germany has become “optional” rather than an absolute necessity to keep the peace and boost prosperity. It is the same with the gloating by the Brexit media about the advances made by the far right in last week’s European elections. The truth is that the advance of extremism on continental Europe is a further huge threat to European stability, and a danger to Britain. We need to be deeply engaged, not largely disengaged.

The odd thing about Sunak’s no-show in Normandy is that he snubbed the United States as well as France and Germany. For the governing remnant of the Tory party remained Atlanticist post-Brexit, continuing to support Nato and latterly its contribution to Ukraine. The Tories—unlike Farage—never went full isolationist after Brexit. Johnson lauded Churchill, albeit shorn of the wartime leader’s postwar enthusiasm for a “kind of United States of Europe”.

Which makes the Sunak absence from a military commemoration of the British contribution to European liberation so much worse a symbol than the UK’s actual policy. Maybe Sunak just isn’t very good at politics.