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Downing Street’s blame game over Sunak’s election gaffes

Isaac Levido, who previously toiled as the strategist to Boris Johnson, is the real author of Rishi Sunak’s misfortune

Sunak’s exit from No 10 is long overdue. Photo: Henry Nicholls/WPA Pool/Getty

With Rishi Sunak not exactly being a “buck stops here” kind of a guy, a frantic blame game has begun in Downing Street about which of his aides should take responsibility for the Tory campaign’s disasters. 

Key suspects in the whodunnit are Nerissa Chesterfield, who serves as Sunak’s director of communications, but whose job title confers a degree of importance upon her which is belied by reality. An ideologue plucked from an obscure role at the Institute for Economic Affairs think tank, she churned out Vote Leave propaganda in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Since then, however, she has more or less disappeared from public view, and I personally know of no journalist who has ever engaged with her. She has even ensured her posts on the X social media site have “protected” status.

Then there’s James Forsyth, former Spectator journalist who serves as the PM’s political secretary and was recently photographed carrying his bags. Looking a bit like a geeky student (he’s actually in his 40s), he has been a convenient whipping boy for some journalists, but a bag carrier is essentially all he has ever been.

There is also the inevitable collection of sons and daughters of rich people who have popped in and out of Downing Street during the Sunak administration – they include Lord Shawcross’s daughter, Eleanor Shawcross Wolfson, and Cass Horowitz, the son of the writer Anthony Horowitz – but of course the real author of Sunak’s misfortune is Isaac Levido, who previously toiled as the strategist to Boris Johnson and, less successfully, Zac Goldsmith, when he ran for mayor of London.

“Isaac gets that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan, and that may well be why you’ve been reading a lot about people like poor old James. The i ran a front-page piece the other day saying Sunak has been ignoring Isaac,” one disillusioned Tory campaign worker tells me. “Isaac had been expecting a lucrative PR job after this, but I think even he gets that no one close to Sunak is going to come out of this with any great likelihood of getting any job whatsoever.”

He adds that the only one on the Sunak comms team that comes out of it all looking smart is Amber de Botton, the former ITN journalist, who had the good sense to quit as Sunak’s director of comms last autumn when she twigged what lay ahead.

Nigel Farage may be masquerading as the leader of a normal democratic party in television election debates, but the reality is that he has never won a parliamentary election and presides over what is still only a struggling business reliant on one rich backer. 

Latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that Reform UK secured a single £25,000 donation in the first three months of the year. The meagre takings must be a worry for its major bankroller and deposed leader, Richard Tice, given that it was £1.1m in the red as at latest accounts, and in hock to him personally for £1.4m. 

Still, the business is hoping to make a few quid out of mugs. Not the mugs that think it’s really a serious party, but actual mugs for drinking out of. Reform UK has applied to trademark its name and logo not just on mugs, but also bedding – making one wonder what kind of person would like to sleep with Nigel Farage.

Mandrake said the other day that Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was peeing on journalism’s high altar when he appointed the former Rupert Murdoch and Boris Johnson flunky Sir William Lewis as the once-iconic newspaper’s publisher and CEO. And so the reputational crisis for the newspaper that exposed Watergate begins. The paper is beset with allegations that, under Lewis’s stewardship, it has been suppressing negative stories relating to him and phone-hacking that took place during his days working for Murdoch. 

To compound matters, Lewis has replaced the Post’s respected executive editor, Sally Buzbee, with Rob Winnett, an obliging associate from his Telegraph days with no conspicuous grasp of what makes news on the other side of the pond.

That Lewis is thin-skinned at least seems clear. As editor of the Telegraph, he waged a curious vendetta against the naturist Tory grandee Sir Bernard Jenkin on account of the fact he once refused to shake hands with him. 

Was Lewis popular at the Torygraph? Let me say simply that his successor, Tony Gallagher – who oversaw the paper’s famous expenses revelations – allowed pieces to appear in the paper that routinely described Lewis as “Rupert Murdoch’s carer”. 

One reason a lot of journalists have a problem with Lewis was his treatment of the late Sun chief reporter John Kay, who, as a near neighbour of Lewis’s family in Hampstead Garden Suburb, helped him to get into journalism in the first place. Kay was among the first whom Lewis, as a Murdoch executive, allowed to be hung out to dry during the Operation Elveden investigation into alleged bribes to police and civil servants by the tabloid. 

Kay was cleared of paying a total of £100,000 over a decade to a Ministry of Defence staffer for assistance on stories relating to the army. It was accepted, however, that the Sun did pay the money to his source, Bettina Jordan-Barber, who was jailed for 12 months for misconduct in public office. Kay, who left the Sun in 2015, told me towards the end of his life that he hoped Lewis would “rot in hell”.

Given that the Tory campaign has made The Thick of It seem tame and unimaginative, it is hardly a shock that Alice Hopkin, James Cleverly’s former SpAd, chose to launch her campaign standing as the parliamentary candidate for Normanton & Hemsworth by posing beside a stone column that the locals refer to as a giant phallus on a piece of unkempt municipal land. Her use of the words “standing” and “hard” in what she wrote on Twitter did not help matters. 

“Alice is not as stupid as she might have appeared, but in the old days there would have been some guidance for candidates out in the constituencies from HQ, but this time around they are so preoccupied with Rishi Sunak’s blunders that none of them are getting a look-in,” one of her people whispers, glumly.

Ever since it threw its weight behind Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the second world war, the Daily Mail has scarcely been known for its sensitivity to religious minorities. In more recent years, the tabloid had to apologise to the Muslim community for inadvertently running an image of the Prophet Muhammad.

Boris Johnson has now got the Mail into a further escalating row with the Jewish community after renaming the Labour leader “Sir Keir Schnorrer” in last weekend’s effort. Schnorrer is Yiddish for beggar and scrounger. 

I am assured Johnson did it out of ignorance rather than design, but prominent Jewish media figures such as Robert Peston have already registered their displeasure. “It is pretty offensive – it was part of the lingua franca of my childhood,” Peston remarked. “I find it unsettling to see Johnson appropriating it.”

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