Election campaigns descend into farce. So soon I hear you say!

A look at the biggest gaffes, rows, fiascos and strategies during the first full week of general election campaigning.

The gloves are off, the mudslinging is underway, in what promises to be one of the dirtiest election campaign battles ever. Over the next few weeks, Right-Wing Watch will be replaced by Election Watch, where we’ll bring you the biggest lies, gaffes, strategies, and fiascos in the run-up to July 4th.

And it certainly got off to a clanger for the Prime Minister, with leaked WhatsApp messages showing panicky right-wing Tories branding the decision to call a July election “madness,” and discussing whether Sunak could be ousted before the campaign got underway. Then, with his flagship policies – Rwanda and the smoking ban – up in smoke so to speak, and his legacy looking increasingly threadbare, the PM announced something as ludicrous as compulsory national service.

As campaigning heats up, week two didn’t fare much better for the Prime Minister. Although it hasn’t been without hitches for the other political leaders either.

Bedlam in Buckinghamshire

On Day 5 of the campaign trail, Rishi Sunak headed to Buckinghamshire to promote his new national service policy. Attempting football drills with youngsters at Chesham United, even the right-wing press couldn’t resist having a pop: ‘Not sure Gareth Southgate will be on the phone, Rishi,” mocked the Mail. The PM’s £2.5bn plan to bring back a form of compulsory national service for 18-year-olds sparked a ministerial backlash and much confusion about the policy within his party, not to mention the public. Northern Ireland minister and Wycombe MP Steve Baker led the backlash, saying: “History has proven time and time again that liberty under law – not compulsion and planning – is the surest road to peace and prosperity.”

Ed Davey takes a dip in Windermere

The Liberal Democrats’ campaign trail got off to a soggy start. Paddleboarding in front of the cameras in Lake Windermere to highlight the issue of sewage dumping, the party’s leader Ed Davey fell in the water, not just once or twice, but three times. Davey later claimed one of his plunges had been intentional. It makes you wonder who on earth advises politicians to do such idiotic stunts.

Farage under fire for ‘Islamophobic’ comments

Why Nigel Farage, who isn’t even standing as an MP, was given so much airtime this week is perplexing and frustrating. Relishing the limelight, the former UKIP leader ignited criticism for using his first election interview to “spout Islamophobia, hatred and divisive comments,” after he said a growing number of Muslims do not share British values.

Speaking on Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillip, the honorary president of Reform UK said he still had “one more big card to play” and confirmed that he plans to stand as an MP candidate in the future, despite feeling “extremely disappointed” at Sunak’s decision to call a snap election on July 4. 

Liberal Democrats deputy leader, Daisy Cooper MP, summed the comments up well: “This is a grubby attempt to divide our communities in a desperate attempt for attention. It’s no surprise Nigel Farage has lost at the ballot box seven times over.”

In yet another well-reported speech later in the week in Kent, the GB News host claimed Reform UK is becoming a “brand new Conservative movement” and attacked a “lack of debate” between the two main parties.

Tories’ leaked email blunder

In another PR disaster for the Tories, an internal memo was accidentally leaked to Conservative MPs by a senior figure in the election campaign accusing some MPs and ministers of failing to “get behind” Rishi Sunak’s general election campaign and spending too much time on ministerial business.

The email said some MPs were refusing to knock on doors and were on holiday. The memo, first reported in the Times, detailed fears over a lack of funding in several marginal seats, including Thurrock in Essex and that of veterans minister Johnny Mercer in Plymouth Moor View.

Sunak’s tour map suggests defensive Tory election strategy

It looks like the Tories are opting for a defensive game plan rather than an attacking one. A road map compiled by the Financial Times shows that since January, the Prime Minister has visited around 66 constituencies. The analysis reveals that his visits focused on seats won by the Tories in the 2019 general election, with an average majority of just under 10,000 votes. The trend suggests a defensive strategy, concludes the FT. The polls however project many of the Tory strongholds will flip to Labour this time round.

‘Sir Sleepy’ attack derided as ‘desperate’

The other string to the Tories electoral bow, if it can be called that, is to go all ‘presidential’ by depicting the election as a fight between Starmer and Sunak. It rather neatly avoids having to defend their record in government. For Sunak’s allies, his hectic campaign schedule is evidence he has more stamina than Keir Starmer, who, at 61, is 17 years older than the Prime Minister. Borrowed from the Donald Trump playbook (Trump refers to Biden as ‘Sleepy Joe’), a ‘Sir Sleepy’ nickname has been doing the rounds this week, peddled, needless to say, by the right-wing press. “Land of Nod: Sir Keir Starmer branded ‘Sir Sleepy’ after disappearing off the campaign trail,” splashed the Sun.

The Labour leader branded the attack as “desperate,” that he couldn’t care less about the nickname, and that he had been “resting at home” on Sunday.

Stamer’s claims of being a socialist called into question

As he hit back at claims of being ‘Sir Sleepy,’ Stamer declared himself to be a socialist. During an interview with the BBC, the Labour leader said: “I would describe myself as a socialist. I describe myself as a progressive. I’d describe myself as somebody who always puts the country first and party second.” It has to be said that under that definition, half the politicians in the world could claim to be socialists. In any case, having backtracked on several progressive policies and favouring political stability, not everyone agreed with Starmer’s self-assessment.

On whether we could be heading for a socialist Britain after the general election, Guardian columnist Harriet Sherwood, wrote: “No. The Labour leadership shows little inclination to introduce radical policies, renationalise on any scale, or boot the bosses out. Its hallmarks are political caution, economic stability and reassuring business leaders… The expectations of many who describe themselves as socialists are low, and they may get even lower as the election campaign goes on.”

Tories release adverts likening Starmer to a toy doll

Turning up the heat on the Labour leader and attempting to capitalise on Starmer’s policy reversals, the Conservatives launched an advert joking that he “comes in every colour.” The ‘Keir’ doll ad references several notable U-turns by Starmer while portraying him as different varieties of the same doll – Eco, Remain and Left-Wing. 

Labour launches ad attacking PM’s gaffes

Labour hit back with similar dirty tactics, exploiting Sunak’s disastrous start to the election. In a new election ad, Labour poked fun at the PM’s recent gaffes, with a video entitled: “Leaked: Rishi Sunak’s campaign diary,” which references his No 10 election announcement speech, the footballing gaffe in Wales, and a Tory councillor pretending to be an ordinary voter.

Diane Abbott row overshadows Labour’s NHS campaigning

But as if to prove it’s not just Tories who can gaffe, one of the biggest campaigning controversies of the week concerned Labour, whose efforts to showcase their plans for NHS waiting lists were greatly overshadowed by the row over whether Diane Abbott will be allowed to defend her seat on July 4.

Abbott had the whip suspended from her in 2023 after suggesting Irish people, Jewish people, and Travellers were not subjected to racism in the same way as black people. This week, the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP told the BBC that she remained banned from standing as a candidate for her party. The alleged decision sparked anger among Abbott’s allies on the left, who said it showed a lack of respect for one of the party’s longest-standing parliamentarians. But when campaigning in Worcester, Starmer insisted that the claims were “not true,” and the decision would be made by the party’s national executive committee. Later in the week, Starmer ended the speculation, telling reporters that Abbott is “free to go forward” as a Labour candidate.

The Telegraph did not hold back in capitalising on the turmoil. “Abbott: “I will not be intimidated by Starmer,” was the newspaper’s front-page headline on May 30.

Labour’s ‘purge’ of the ‘left’ goes on

As the confusion and furore about Diane Abbott’s future with the party intensified, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who had been the MP for Brighton Kemptown since 2017, announced that he had been suspended from the party and would not be allowed to stand for Labour. He said that someone had made what he believed to be a “vexatious and politically motivated complaint” about his behaviour eight years ago.

Labour candidate Faiza Shaheen, who is an economist and inequality campaigner, was also blocked by Labour’s national executive committee from standing in Chingford and Woodford Green. The decision was based on 14 tweets that allegedly raised concerns over her suitability as a candidate. Shaheen said one was about her experiences of Islamophobia within the party, and another about liking a sketch by a Jewish comedian that referred to critics of Israel coming under attack. Speaking on BBC Newsnight, Shaheen said she was in a state of shock after receiving an email informing that her candidacy had been blocked.

On a personal note, I met Faiza Shaheen and listened to her speak at a Labour Conference and was impressed by her intelligence and compassion, qualities which surely the Labour Party needs irrespective of supposed factional labels. As with the confusion around Diane Abbott, the decision to bar her was met with criticism. The Labour Muslim Network described it as “unacceptable” and “outrageous,” while the Labour campaign group Momentum slammed it as “the vindictive and cruel treatment of another woman of colour candidate.”

Again, the right-wing media leapt all over the upset within Labour ranks, with the Sun describing Shaheen as a “Corbynista candidate.” “Left-wing Labour candidate blocked from standing amid anti-Semitism row,” splashed the Telegraph, with a deliberately provocative image of Shaheem with Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.

If Starmer’s motive in the so-called ‘purging’ of the left from his party is to avoid negative headlines, it doesn’t seem to be working. And the campaigning has only just begun!

Right-Wing Media Watch – The ‘Daily Boris’ gets excited about Sunak talking to their long-term hero

Just when we think things can’t get much worse, the Telegraph runs with an ‘exclusive’ that Sunak is in talks with Boris Johnson about the general election.

Despite their fraught relationship, the Prime Minister told the Daily T podcast that the pair have recently spoken, specifically, about the “risk” that Keir Starmer poses to the country,” the newspaper informs.

Discussing the former prime minister, whose relationship with Rishi Sunak became dicey when the then-chancellor resigned in July 2022 helping lead to Johnson’s downfall within days, Sunak said he was “very proud” of what they had achieved in government together.

The front-page exclusive also spoke about how Sunak regards himself as a Thatcherite and defended his controversial plan to bring back mandatory national service.

But the article focuses predominantly on Johnson, reminding readers that allies of the former PM have “pointed the finger of blame at Mr Sunak, and continue to feel a sense of betrayal.” The story also pointed to a 2,000-word article by Boris Johnson warning of the consequences of a Stamer election win, “which did not once mention Mr Sunak by name.”

As Sunak continues his political death march, it seems he is resorting to increasingly desperate measures to fight off what looks like the inevitable. So too is the Conservative press it seems, as shown by making the PM’s conversation with the beleaguered Boris Johnson its front-page story.

It also shows just how much the Telegraph still holds its former employee in esteem. Johnson and the right-wing newspaper go back a long way. Having met the newspaper’s editor Max Hastings while at university, he secured employment on the Telegraph’s lead-writing desk.

In the summer of 2019, the right-wing newspaper came under fire for endorsing the then-candidate for Tory party leadership. At the time, Johnson was paid £275,000 a year to write columns for the newspaper. It called Johnson “Mr Brexit,” (a nickname that seems to have originated with Trump) and exhorted readers to “elect him PM and give him a chance to deliver.”

Smear of the week – Daily Mail readers call on Tories to put the Rayner council house smear to bed, yes really!

A working-class woman who is not afraid to speak her mind and is popular with voters. It’s not surprising that Angela Rayner is feared and loathed within Conservative circles, many of whom are going to great lengths to try and topple her.

But the more they try and bring her down, the more foolish they look. You think they would accept defeat and retreat. But no, not where the Labour deputy is concerned.

After months of wasted police time and absurd headlines, the police finally dropped the probe into Tory allegations about Angela Rayner’s council house. Yet instead of moving on and doing the worthy thing of apologising, the saga is being kept alive.

When interviewed on Channel 4 News this week, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride was asked if he thought Rayner was owed an apology. “No, I don’t think so,” he asserted, stating how information was being passed to HMRC.

“That sounds like you’re trying to carry on the smear,” said presenter Grishan Guru-Murthy.

Dan Hodges, the Mail columnist who neurotically ran a daily diary about the saga on X, devoted yet another column to Rayner’s apparent “lies, evasion and hypocrisy.”

“Angela Rayner still has questions to answer,” Hodges claimed. Fortunately, even Mail readers now recognise the story as a blatant smear, and that it’s the Tories showing the hypocrisy.

“Dan, will you be asking questions of the four Tory MPs who made a reported £4.5 million profit between them after selling publicly funded houses? Thought not,” one reader commented, in reference to Tory MPs who raked in millions of pounds between them from flogging houses funded by the public.

“The police already said she has no case to answer. The only ones who need to be answering questions are the Tories wasting taxpayer’s money and police time on a case we already knew wasn’t prosecutable,” wrote another Mail reader.

The same newspaper even tried to change tack about the story with a ludicrous front-page lead. “As police DROP Rayner council house probe… she faces fresh row over pledge to ‘recognise Palestine.’”

Yes, the new attack peddled by the paper refers to a video that was leaked to the right-wing blog Guido Fawkes showing Rayner speaking to voters in her constituency about the conflict in Palestine.

According to the Mail, Rayner ‘begged’ Muslim voters not to oust her and vowed Labour will ‘recognise the state of Palestine’ after the election.

Meanwhile the following day, it emerged that Rayner has been cleared by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

Will Mel Stride apologise now? Doubt it. Gutter politics at their very worst.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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