Labour has parked its tanks on the Tories’ lawn

How both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer chose to mark Armed Forces Day on Saturday said a lot about the mood of both camps going into the last week of general election campaigning.

As a day to commemorate our armed forces and veterans, it should have been a moment for both leaders to project patriotism and pride.

For Sunak this was always going to be tough because it brought to the fore his monumental misjudgement from three weeks ago, when he left the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings early. His absence from a major part of the International D-Day commemorations was a turning point of this election campaign and one from which the Prime Minster has not fully recovered.

Sunak thus chose to play it safe on Saturday, meeting veterans at a café in his constituency in Yorkshire. It was illustrative of the Conservatives playing an increasingly defensive campaign with Sunak cutting an ever-lonelier figure and leading a retreat to home ground; talking less of winning and more of preventing a huge Labour majority.

Starmer, meanwhile, chose to mark Armed Forces Day in Aldershot, the home of the British Army and a constituency Labour has never won. The parliamentary seat of Aldershot has been held by the Conservatives for over a century so for Starmer to campaign there, with his Shadow Defence Secretary by his side, certainly exuded optimism. It demonstrated a Labour Party on the front foot, working as a team, reaching deep into opposition territory and starting to take ground even on the most Tory of issues.

Labour has had a good campaign on defence and security. Announcements on defence spending and support for expanding our nuclear deterrent have been well received by a public often sceptical about Labour’s commitment to defence. When the election was called in May, the Conservative Party polled ahead of Labour on the issue of defence, as they have consistently for years. Yet over the last few weeks, some polls have even put Labour ahead, albeit marginally.

Against this backdrop, the last four days of campaigning start today. These last days are all about momentum. For all the noise in political circles, many of the electorate will be tuning in for the first time as they prepare to vote. It’s important they hear a clear and consistent message, and they hear it repeatedly.

In 2010, I joined David Cameron on the battle bus as he spent the final 48 hours of the campaign zig-zagging across the country from Northern Ireland to Scotland, through England to Wales, stopping off to meet paramedics working a night shift, staff at an early morning fish market in Grimsby, supermarket workers, bakers, businesspeople and schoolchildren.

Eating, sleeping and working on the campaign bus created a sense of urgency and when we ended with the final rally in Bristol, the campaign felt like it had reached a planned and purposeful crescendo.

But in the end, elections are won and lost on polling day. The polls have called it for Labour and although that now seems inevitable, the battle for No 10 will be decided when ballots are cast.

In 2005, as the Parliamentary candidate for Dewsbury, I remember the overwhelming anxiety as polling day came around. I knew that months of planning, preparing and canvassing would be tested in these final few hours. From final dawn raid leaflet drops to last minute candidate visits, the "get out the vote" strategy in the end must work. Voting intentions win polls; votes in ballot boxes win elections.

This has been a long election campaign. Both Sunak and Starmer will be exhausted. And yet this is the moment they must look their most energised and energetic; appear ready to lead a country.

So, let me give some last-minute advice that I have accumulated over two decades of campaigning: don’t try anything dramatic, don’t make avoidable mistakes, stick to the message, don’t get complacent, remember you are always “on the record”, stay hydrated, eat well (not Haribo’s and Twix bars), catch what rest and sleep you can, have a strong backroom and front facing team around you and make sure these last few days look packed, focused and fun.

As we enter these final days of campaigning, let’s hope Sunak, Starmer and their teams have enough left in the tank, because this is the moment the marathon finally becomes a sprint.