Harper agrees Sunak made ‘mistake’ by leaving D-Day events early amid Tory anger

Rishi Sunak made a “mistake” by skipping a major D-Day memorial event, another Cabinet minister has said, with the debacle continuing to dominate as campaigning entered its third weekend.

Mark Harper said he agreed “with what the Prime Minister himself said – it was a mistake for him to leave early”, but did not go as far as fellow senior Tory Penny Mordaunt in branding the decision “completely wrong”.

Mr Sunak appeared to be avoiding speaking to the media on Saturday’s campaign trail, with an opportunity for reporters to ask questions not taking place as was originally planned.

The Prime Minister was forced to apologise for leaving France before an international ceremony attended by world leaders including US President Joe Biden to mark the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tours the gardens during a visit to the Big Help Out project in Bishop Auckland
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tours the gardens during a visit to the Big Help Out project in Bishop Auckland (Phil Nobel/PA)

The move prompted a fierce backlash from political rivals and some Conservatives already nervous about their party’s electoral prospects, with the outrage swelling after it emerged Mr Sunak had returned to the UK to record a General Election campaign TV interview.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said people were “flabbergasted” by the Prime Minister’s decision, which was “such a letdown for our whole country and our history, particularly for our brave veterans”.

“I share the concerns of veterans and people across the country who feel really let down and are upset, and indeed some very angry,” he told the PA news agency during a visit to Newbury.

Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer said it was his “duty” to thank veterans at the D-Day event the Prime Minister skipped.

Mr Harper repeated the Prime Minister’s suggestion it had always been his intention to leave before the international event on Omaha Beach, even before he called the election.

The Transport Secretary told BBC Breakfast on Saturday: “I don’t know what the detail was of putting the Prime Minister’s schedule together, which, as he said, was done some time ago before the election campaign was called.

“But, look, it was a mistake. People make mistakes. The Prime Minister has made a mistake. He’s apologised for it. And he’s apologised to those that would have been particularly hurt by it.”

It came after Ms Mordaunt, a Navy reservist, told a seven-way BBC debate on Friday: “What happened was completely wrong and the Prime Minister has rightly apologised for that, apologised to veterans but also to all of us, because he was representing all of us.”

The Commons Leader is seen as a potential successor to Mr Sunak as Tory leader, although she is projected to lose her Portsmouth North seat at the election.

After she said the issue should not become “a political football”, Reform UK leader Nigel Farage replied: “Well, it already is. It already is because the veterans themselves are speaking out saying he’s let the country down.”

The debate also saw Ms Mordaunt clash with Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner over Mr Sunak’s controversial claim that Labour would hike taxes by £2,000, with Ms Rayner branding it “a lie”.

Mr Harper on Saturday doubled down on the figure, insisting: “We’ve made reasonable assumptions, not outlandish assumptions.”

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer helps to serve drinks during a visit to 3 Locks Brewery in Camden in north London
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer helps to serve drinks during a visit to 3 Locks Brewery in Camden in north London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The claim has been criticised by the UK statistics watchdog for failing to make clear the sum totalled over four years, while the Treasury’s top civil servant objected to the presentation of the number as if it had been produced by impartial civil servants.

Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said the Tories’ claim was “misleading”.

Labour, if it wins the election, would inherit some tax rises included in the Government’s existing spending plans, he said, but insisted there would be no additional taxes on households.

Mr Reynolds told BBC Breakfast: “If we were to form a government after the General Election on July 4, we would inherit the Government’s spending plans.

“Now, I’ll be candid, there are in those plans tax rises. I mean, the personal allowance we all get in terms of our income tax, that is set to be frozen for several years.”

He added that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “is absolutely right to say there won’t be additional taxes under a Labour government when it comes to things like income tax or VAT”.

Sir Ed Davey playing tennis at Victoria Park Tennis, Newbury, Berkshire while on the General Election campaign trail
Sir Ed Davey playing tennis at Victoria Park Tennis, Newbury, Berkshire while on the General Election campaign trail (Will Durrant/PA)

The Tories have sought to move on from the D-Day row with new policy offers, including a pledge to axe stamp duty for first-time buyers on homes up to £425,000.

They also set out their “Backing Drivers Bill” which would ban Wales-style blanket 20mph limits and reversing the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) expansion from inner into outer London.

Mr Sunak visited a walled garden at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, on Saturday as part of his Saturday tour of the North East and Yorkshire.

A possible “huddle” with reporters was called off as the D-Day row continued, and after his awkward exchange with broadcasters on Friday.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir set out Labour’s plans for small businesses, including an overhaul of the business rates system, at a brewery in Camden alongside Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden.

Sir Ed was in Newbury, Berkshire, promoting the Lib Dems’ proposal to plough £50 million a year into maintaining three new national parks.

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