Majority of Brits say Rishi Sunak skipping D-Day event is 'unacceptable', as minister calls criticism 'unfair'

7 June 2024, 17:50 | Updated: 7 June 2024, 17:51

Rishi Sunak has come in for fierce criticism
Rishi Sunak has come in for fierce criticism. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Most British people think that Rishi Sunak's decision to leave D-Day commemorations in France early was "unacceptable", a poll has suggested.

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Some 43% of people polled by YouGov think that the decision was "completely unacceptable", with 22% responding that it was "somewhat acceptable".

Over two-thirds of the 5,778 respondents who voted Conservative in 2019 disapproved of the move, alongside 71% of Labour voters.

Mr Sunak has apologised for the decision, which saw him skip the international ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings on Thursday to attend a TV interview.

Some 13% of people polled think the move was "somewhat acceptable", alongside 8% who felt that it was "completely acceptable". Another 13% didn't know.

Rishi Sunak can make time for Elon Musk but not all of the D-Day anniversary?

Three-quarters of people over the age of 65 found the decision unacceptable to some extent, compared with just under half of people aged between 18 and 24.

Instead of attending the event on Thursday, Mr Sunak chose to return to the UK to give an interview defending comments he had made surrounding Labour's tax plans.

Speaking to broadcasters on a campaign visit to Wiltshire on Friday, Sunak said: "On reflection, that was a mistake and I apologise."

He has been subjected to fierce criticism from political opponents and military veterans.

Tom Swarbrick calls on Sunak to 'take responsibility' for D-day misstep

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer told broadcasters on Friday that Sunak must "answer for his choices" following the snub.

Mr Sunak explained that he had "participated in a number of events in Portsmouth and France" in recent days to "honour those who risked their lives."

"The itinerary for these events was set weeks ago before the start of the General Election campaign, and having participated in all the British events with British veterans, I returned home before the international leaders event later in the day," Sunak said.

Cabinet ministers have acknowledged that Mr Sunak was right to apologise, while also saying that the discussion should move on.

Mark Spencer, the environment minister, told LBC's Tom Swarbrick: "To be honest some of [the criticism] is a little bit unfair, he met all the British veterans for a start.

"He was there for all the British events but he said he shouldn't have left early, he said it was a mistake and I think we need now to move on."

Weighing in on the PM's controversial decision, the Labour leader told broadcasters during a visit to a London housing development on Friday  that staying for the duration of the D-Day ceremony was “the only choice I was going to make”.
Weighing in on the PM's controversial decision, the Labour leader told broadcasters during a visit to a London housing development on Friday that staying for the duration of the D-Day ceremony was “the only choice I was going to make”. Picture: Alamy

"I think it's important though, given the enormity of the sacrifice made, that we don't politicise this. The focus should rightly be on the veterans who gave so much," the PM continued as he addressed broadcasters.

"I had the honour and privilege of speaking to many of them and their families, hearing their stories, expressing my gratitude, personally to them.

"But I'm someone who will always admit when I've made a mistake and that's what you'll always get from me."

Weighing in on the PM's controversial decision, Labour leader Sir Keir told the media during a visit to a London housing development on Friday that staying for the duration of the D-Day ceremony was “the only choice I was going to make”.

The Labour leader was seen to comment on Mr Sunak's apology, saying: “He will have to answer for his own choices. For me the only choice was to be there."

It comes as Mr Sunak said it was not his intention for D-Day commemorations "to be overshadowed by politics".

Read more: General Election LIVE: Rishi Sunak apologises for early exit from D-Day events

Read more: 'It was a mistake not to stay longer': Sunak says sorry for 'skipping D-Day event' to return to UK for interview

It follows comments from opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, who told broadcasters that Rishi Sunak must "answer for his choices".
It follows comments from opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, who told broadcasters that Rishi Sunak must "answer for his choices". Picture: Alamy

“It was a humbling day to contemplate the bravery, individually, of those, many of them teenagers, running up the beach under gun fire, not knowing whether they would succeed or fail and then to think about how hard that must have been," Starmer told broadcasters.

“To then see the veterans and say thank you, I thanked them on behalf of the Labour Party and the country and on behalf of my children actually who were freely going to school yesterday because of the contribution that they made, the sacrifice that they made and their colleagues.

“For me it was really important to be there for the whole day paying my respects. That was the only choice I was going to make. The Prime Minister really will have to answer for his choices,” he added.

The visit saw Labour pledge to build more social housing if it wins July's general election, telling reporters: “Yes, we will and we will make sure that we hit that stretch target of 1.5 million houses."

Read more: Nick Ferrari offers £500 reward for return of RAF veteran's medals lost yesterday in Ranville, France

The PM said he had been "honoured" to mark the 80th anniversary in both Portsmouth and France, adding that it was a mistake not to stay longer.

"The 80th anniversary of D-Day has been a profound moment to honour the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our values, our freedom and our democracy," Mr Sunak said.

"This anniversary should be about those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The last thing I want is for the commemorations to be overshadowed by politics.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, US President Joe Biden attending D-Day Anniversary International Ceremony at Omaha Beach
Foreign Secretary David Cameron, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, US President Joe Biden attending D-Day Anniversary International Ceremony at Omaha Beach. Picture: Alamy

"I care deeply about veterans and have been honoured to represent the UK at a number of events in Portsmouth and France over the past two days and to meet those who fought so bravely.

"After the conclusion of the British event in Normandy, I returned back to the UK. On reflection, it was a mistake not to stay in France longer – and I apologise."

Read more: 'Isolation is not the answer', Joe Biden warns, as world leaders gather to mark 80th anniversary of D-Day

Read more: Today on D-Day’s 80th anniversary I remember my uncle Hamish who died bravely during WWII, writes Andrew Marr

Responding to the Prime Minister's apology, Jonathan Ashworth, Labour's Shadow Paymaster General, said: "Yesterday’s D-Day commemorations were about remembering the bravery of all those who serve our country.

"In choosing to prioritise his own vanity TV appearances over our veterans, Rishi Sunak has shown what is most important to him.

"It is yet more desperation, yet more chaos, and yet more dreadful judgement from this out of touch Prime Minister."

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer said Sunak's decision to leave the D-Day anniversary events early was a "significant mistake".

He told the Sun he understood the outrage but defended the Prime Minister's record on veterans.

"I get the outrage. It's a mistake. It's a significant mistake for which he's apologised.

"But I'm also not going to join the howls of the fake veterans supporters who say he doesn't treat veterans correctly, because it's not correct."

He added: "Obviously it's a mistake. The PM on these visits receives a lot of advice on what he should and shouldn't be doing.

"I've spoken to the Prime Minister this morning and obviously it's disappointing, but I do find the faux outrage from people who've done nothing but make my life difficult trying to improve veterans' affairs over the years is pretty nauseating, to be frank."

Foreign Secretary David Cameron took Mr Sunak's place at the event and was seen in photos with Joe Biden and other leaders at the event.

The PM's rival for Downing Street, Keir Starmer, also stayed behind at the event.

It came after Mr Sunak spoke earlier in the D-Day programme to pay tribute to veterans.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Franco-British ceremony at the Ver-sur-mer memorial
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Franco-British ceremony at the Ver-sur-mer memorial. Picture: Alamy

Paul Brand, who was conducting the interview Mr Sunak, said: "Today was the slot we were offered ... we don't know why."

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said Rishi Sunak had "brought shame" to the office of Prime Minister by leaving Normandy early.

"One of the greatest privileges of the office of Prime Minister is to be there to honour those who served, yet Rishi Sunak abandoned them on the beaches of Normandy," Sir Ed said.

"He has brought shame to that office and let down our country.

"I am thinking right now of all those veterans and their families he left behind and the hurt they must be feeling. It is a total dereliction of duty and shows why this Conservative Government just has to go."

Mr Sunak's absence for part of the ceremony sparked disbelief from onlookers in the armed forces.

Colonel Richard Kemp said: "I know there is a General Election campaign to fight but this is a very significant anniversary of a major military achievement which led to freedom in Europe.

"It’s being attended by some of the veterans who may never attend another due to their age. I think it was very important that he showed his commitment to it.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and wife Akshata Murty with RAF veteran Bernard Morgan
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and wife Akshata Murty with RAF veteran Bernard Morgan. Picture: Alamy

"He should have stayed. As the PM of our country he should have been there to represent the country and to show our gratitude to those who fell."

Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a retired army officer, said: "It's a great disappointment. What could be more important than respecting the people who gave their lives for this country?"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murty stand with D-Day veteran Alec Penstone
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murty stand with D-Day veteran Alec Penstone. Picture: Alamy

Campaigning had largely been suspended over as the 80th anniversary of D-Day took centre stage, and Mr Sunak appeared in his prime ministerial capacity at various commemoration events.

Tory sources had played down the diplomatic impact of the PM's absence in Normandy later on Thursday, pointing out he will be meeting other G7 leaders next week at a summit in Italy.

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