British PM Rishi Sunak left D-Day memorial early, apologizes after outrage

LONDON — Eighty years after Winston Churchill helped mastermind the Normandy landings, a British prime minister was under fire Friday for leaving D-Day anniversary events early to return to the campaign trail of an election he looks likely to lose.

Already embattled and unpopular, Rishi Sunak cut short his time with veterans in France to fly back to London for a television interview.

Sunak later apologized for what he said was a “mistake,” but not before the decision to head home early saw him assailed by his own allies, as well as his political enemies.

Sunak accused of ‘dereliction of duty’

Sunak is fighting for his political life, with his Conservatives trailing the opposition Labour Party by upward of 20 points in some opinion polls ahead of a July 4 national election. If confirmed at the ballot box, this gulf in support would hand the ruling party a defeat so heavy that it could border on annihilation.

Sunak made the decision to call the surprise early vote himself, meaning the D-Day commemorations fell in the heart of the campaign.

The prime minister did travel to France to join King Charles III, French President Emmanuel Macron and others at a British-led memorial Thursday morning, honoring the 60,000 or so British troops who joined thousands more from the United States and Canada in the invasion that helped turn the tide against Nazi Germany.

But when the time came for world leaders to line up for an official photo, President Joe Biden and Macron were left to pose with Britain’s foreign minister, David Cameron, a former prime minister but nonetheless a stand-in for the void left by his boss.

Labour leader Keir Starmer was in attendance, pictured chatting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It later emerged that Sunak had given an interview after traveling home. “Today was the slot we were offered,” ITV News presenter Paul Brand said. “We don’t know why.”

“On reflection, that was a mistake and I apologize,” Sunak said Friday about his decision to return home.

He said that his itinerary for the D-Day events was “set weeks ago, before the general election campaign,” while his office denied that he had initially planned to skip the memorials altogether.

“I think it’s important, though, given the enormity of the sacrifice made, that we don’t politicize this,” Sunak told broadcasters on the campaign trail, after initially apologizing in a post on X. “The focus should rightly be on the veterans who gave so much,” he said.

And yet, in the eyes of many, that damage had already been done.

The left-leaning tabloid The Daily Mirror splashed ‘PM DITCHES D-DAY’ on its front page.

Starmer said Sunak “will have to answer for his own actions” but that “for me, there was nowhere else I was going to be.” Ed Davey, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats who are hoping to win some longtime Conservative seats, said Sunak had “abandoned” those who fought in Normandy with “a total dereliction of duty.”

Nigel Farage, the populist Trump ally and leader of the Reform UK party seeking to squeeze the Conservatives from the right, said “patriotic people who love their country” shouldn’t vote for Sunak.

The criticism was hardly less scathing from some on Sunak’s own side.

His Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer, a former soldier, described it as a “significant mistake.” Craig Oliver, who was Cameron’s communications director, said “it was a huge error of judgment.” Sunak gave the impression “he put politics before what really matters,” he said.

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