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Inside the Tory meltdown as Sunak accused of ignoring election guru Isaac Levido

Before Rishi Sunak decided to call the general election, there was said to be a divide inside No 10.

His chief-of-staff, Liam Booth Smith, was in favour of the 4 July date, and Isaac Levido, his experienced Australian campaign guru, against.

Since that decision, the Tories’ bid for a fourth term in office has been characterised by calamity.

From the Prime Minister getting soaked on the steps of Downing Street to inviting ‘captain of a sinking ship’ metaphors as he visited the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

His latest misjudgment – to return early from D-Day commemorations in Normandy, for a TV interview – has brought the mechanics of the campaign back into sharp focus.

Is the Prime Minister getting advice? If so, is he choosing to ignore it? And when fundamental factors, such as the economy, the party’s record in government and a divided rank and file, are stacked against you: what impact can a campaign chief have?

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain, pauses as he delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in central London, on May 22, 2024. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday set a general election date for July 4, ending months of speculation about when he would go to the country. The vote -- the third since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the first in July since 1945 -- comes as Sunak seeks to capitalise on better economic data to woo voters hit by cost-of-living rises. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)
Caption: Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain outside 10 Downing Street, announces an election will be held on 4 July (Source: AFP)

The twists and turns of 2024 are not Levido’s first rodeo. So effective was he in spearheading Boris Johnson’s 2019 election, that staff at CCHQ chanted his name to the tune of the Red Stripes’ famous Seven Nation Army – an anthem usually associated with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – when victory became clear.

Also on his CV is the Australian Liberal-National coalition’s triumph over Labor, earlier that same year. Hailed as a “miracle” win by Scott Morrison, the campaign saw the Liberals relentlessly pursue wedge issues on tax and immigration, not dissimilar to the approach taken by Sunak’s team today in taking on Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour.

But taking a broader view, Levido’s is record is far from blemish-free. He led Zac Goldsmith’s ill-fated bid to be Mayor of London, which was mired in claims of racism.

He was also heavily involved in Theresa May’s 2017 election, which was widely viewed as an easy home run for the Tories until proposed social care reforms became dubbed the ‘dementia tax’ and were credited with leaving the Prime Minister with a reduced majority.

“A chef is only as good as their knives and their ingredients,” said one former Downing Street aide, who worked on the 2019 campaign. “The fundamentals are far more important, such as policies, economic environment, the leader, the record, people’s personal circumstances. About 85 per cent of the job [winning an election] is stuff outside of the campaign manager’s control.”

Where Levido’s brand of campaigning excels is maintaining a level of direction and order within the nerve centre, sources say.

“The trick is simple messages and total discipline,” said one source. “Everyone speaks with one voice, one message. Days start at 5.30am and finish at midnight.”

The aide added a cool head piloting the campaign is critical at this point as “they decide what we say and when, when we pick a fight, what we say and how we say it, and then stick to the messaging and vary tactics to get that message out”.

TOPSHOT - Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak returns from a boat tour during his visit to a maritime technology centre at a dockyard in Belfast on May 24, 2024 as part of his campaign ahead of a general election on July 4. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Caption: Rishi Sunak’s visit to a dockyard in Belfast drew unfortunate references to ‘sinking ships’ and the Titanic (Source: AFP)

But insiders report that, whereas Johnson was content to be instructed, Sunak has a habit of rejecting advice and ploughing his own furrow.

Most insiders believe Levido cautioned that returning from Normandy for a broadcast interview would be badly-received. They also claim CCHQ was kept in the dark about the move.

Sunak is surrounded by a host of allies, including his long-time friend and former Spectator political editor James Forsyth, communications chief Nerissa Chesterfield, digital expert Cass Horowitz and a host of other aides.

Iain Dale, A veteran Conservative commentator and former parliamentary candidate, recalls how the Tories’ 2010 campaign, which despite Labour grappling with the fallout of the 2008 financial crash ended in David Cameron failing to secure an overall majority, suffered from “too many cooks” around the leader.

“You can’t have co-football managers,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to have a single figurehead.”

He cites Lynton Crosby, the “Wizard of Oz” election guru from whom Levido learnt his craft and who masterminded both the 2015 Tory victory over Ed Miliband’s Labour and Boris Johnson’s run for City Hall, as the ultimate campaign manager.

“He just knew how to motivate people,” he said. “And I think some of the campaign managers for the different parties since then haven’t really quite got that skill set. They might be brilliant tacticians, but they can’t actually inspire their flock.”

The current campaign has repeatedly been “blown off course” by events, adds Dale, who briefly stood to be the Tunbridge Wells candidate in this election, underlining that chaos at the centre could drain the motivation of candidates fighting marginal seats.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with National Chair, Royal British Legion, Jason Coward after laying wreath during the UK national commemorative event for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, held at the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. Picture date: Thursday June 6, 2024. PA Photo. It is the first time the memorial, which contains the names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who fell on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944, has been used for major anniversary commemorations, having been opened in 2021. See PA story MEMORIAL DDay. Photo credit should read: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Caption: Rishi Sunak with National Chair, Royal British Legion, Jason Coward after laying wreath in Ver-sur-Mer, Normandy (Source: PA)

Mark Littlewood, director of the Popular Conservatives group, fears a key building block of the 2024 Tory campaign is looking shaky: the 80:20 strategy.

CCHQ was believed to have been focusing on defending 80 seats and targeting 20 new seats, but their plummeting polling position, particularly with Nigel Farage’s re-entry to frontline politics as leader of Reform, may mean a sharp switch in objective is needed.

“Now, you obviously have to attempt to win, but where you draw those lines,” he asks.

This could present a further problem for Levido, who is grappling with a fragmented party as more than 80 former Tory MPs have announced they were standing down ahead of the election.

“The campaign plan has not been fully bought into, or sold to, the Conservative parliamentary party,” says Littlewood. “Now, that’s not certainly [Levido’s] fault or his job, he might be relying on the chief whip, or the chairman of the 22 or a whole range of things to try and make it land, but that seems to be a bit of a bit of a problem.”

It is a stark contrast to the environment enjoyed by Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s general election chief. With the party miles ahead in the polls, and discipline ruthlessly applied as part of the candidate selection process, Starmer looks on course for a comfortable victory.

NO USE AFTER THURSDAY JULY 4, 2024. EDITORIAL USE ONLY Handout photo provided by ITV of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the ITV General Election debate at MediaCity in Salford ahead of General Election on July 4. Issue date: Tuesday June 4, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Election. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Caption: Rishi Sunak’s repeated claim that Labour will raise taxes by £2,000 in the ITV debate has been rebutted by Treasury officials (Source: PA)

Some Tory insiders acknowledge that McSweeney has “pulled a blinder” in transforming the opposition, but point out his powers over the Labour operation are “all encompassing” in comparison to any campaign manager in government.

McSweeney has been the driving force behind the Starmer project, launching the cross-faction Labour Together group in 2017 where he crafting out a three-year plan to take the party into government, before running Starmer’s leadership campaign, becoming his chief of staff and then shifting to Labour HQ where he manages all policy and communications staff.

“He’s clearly been doing everything,” says one source. “Whereas I don’t think Isaac’s been involved in candidate selections, I don’t think Isaac’s been involved in government policy, because it’s slightly different if you’re a governing party.”

Labour is running a confident, aggressive and united campaign as a result, which has so far been able to swiftly capitalise on Tory weaknesses.

But with more than three weeks still to go, insiders anticipate Levido’s ability to respond, however limited by Downing Street chaos, will be felt all the way up to polling day.

Election 2024

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are on the campaign trail, and i‘s general election live blog is the go-to place for everything from party manifestos to candidate news and who could decide the election.

Sir Keir and other party leaders condemned Mr Sunak for departing from D-Day celebrations early, and the Prime Minister issued an apology. Meanwhile, i spoke to Jacob Rees-Mogg about the Tories’ chances at the election, as panic is setting in at Conservative HQ.

i also launched its Save Britain’s Rivers manifesto, urging parties to commit to five pledges to improve our waterways. Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey has become the first to back the campaign.

Seven representatives from the main parties battled in a general election leaders’ debate, and Katy Balls has given her verdict on who won. To catch up on the coverage, read our debate live blog.

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