(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s advisers have known for some time that it was unlikely he would win the UK general election. When they received internal polling this week confirming the prime minister was on course for a worst-case scenario, they privately accepted defeat and shifted their focus to ensuring survival of the Conservative Party.

The Tories’ own analysis this week showed that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is set for an historic victory in just 12 days, according to people familiar with the matter. The data forecast a result in line with public polling that currently projects a parliamentary majority as high as 200. A senior Conservative minister who has been briefed on the numbers said election night would be like the Battle of the Somme, the World War I clash that began with the British Army’s bloodiest-ever day. 

The gathering sense of doom intensified amid revelations that close aides to Sunak placed bets on a July 4 election date at a time when many in Sunak’s own Cabinet were still in the dark about the plan. It was the sort of misstep — like the prime minister’s decision to leave early from D-Day commemorations earlier this month — that cut through with the public and reinforced negative views of the Conservatives as not focused on serving the public.

There are now growing concerns among Tory officials that Sunak’s own constituency of Richmond and Northallerton is no longer completely safe, after one poll implied he could be the first serving premier in history to lose his seat. More than half of the Cabinet is at serious risk of being ejected from parliament, an outcome that would be unprecedented in British political history, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

That is why Conservative campaign headquarters on Wednesday decided to shift resources away from many currently Tory-held seats with majorities as high as 10,000 voters, toward areas previously considered completely safe. In a visible retreat to defend the party’s heartlands, Sunak campaigned in two seats in rural Devon on Tuesday. Labour will respond by moving to a more attacking stance in the final days of the ground campaign, flooding activists to some Tory constituencies the opposition previously thought it had no chance of winning, party officials said.

Tory messaging will now center on asking voters to ensure their party forms a credible opposition to a Labour administration. “If you think somehow we might not win, it’s important that we’re there to hold any future government to account,” Foreign Secretary David Cameron told farmers on that visit.

Where Tory campaign staff retain hope, it is that turnout among core Conservative voters on the day might surprise on the upside. The primary reason for the vast Labour majorities seen in opinion polls is not that Starmer’s party is significantly increasing its vote from the last election, but that there is extreme apathy among 2019 Conservative voters, a Tory aide said.

“If it is to be the Labour Party with a massive landslide — 450, 460 seats in our Parliament out of 650 in total — then what is going to matter is having an effective opposition,” Cabinet minister Mel Stride told Bloomberg TV on Wednesday. “Part of my message to the UK electorate is to really think about what kind of parliament you want.”

Almost all the Conservatives’ effort in the last days of the campaign would go toward the get-out-the-vote operation targeted at voters who supported the party five years ago, mainly in areas mainly in rural and southern England, one Sunak aide said. Any voters hinting to Tory canvassers that they are considering voting for Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, would be given damaging information about the party’s candidates, such as the one reported to have called Adolf Hitler “as brilliant as he was utter evil.”

If the Tory ground campaign is successful, Sunak could hold dozens more seats than currently envisaged, the aide said. While that would still mean a landslide defeat, it could better preserve the more than 300-year-old party to fight again. 

One problem with that is the man in charge of the Conservative field operation took a leave of absence this week, after becoming embroiled in a scandal that’s seen prominent Tories close to Sunak accused of using insider knowledge to place bets on the election date.

“Gamble-gate is just another factor that will make it harder to win back undecideds,” said Luke Tryl of the More In Common think tank. “The likely result is that some voters who would’ve reluctantly voted Tory now won’t, making those catastrophic defeat projections closer to reality.”

The row has compounded widespread fury in the Tory ranks about the quality of their own campaign. There is almost universal disbelief among Conservative ministers that Sunak chose to call an election in the summer, before improving economic data filtered through.

Traders expect the first Bank of England interest rate cut to come as soon as August, meaning Starmer will be the likely beneficiary of any feel-good factor. A longer run-in to the election would have given the Tories more time to scrutinize Starmer and his shadow cabinet on their past positions on tax and other issues, a Tory candidate said.

Ministers are scathing of Sunak’s own performance, which reached a nadir when he had to apologize for leaving D-Day commemorations early. Two senior ministers said they thought the party would secure a less bad result if the premier announced this weekend that he understood the public didn’t want him as their leader and stepped back from the campaign to allow the cabinet to make the case for a strong Tory opposition.

There is anger not just at the limited tax cuts Sunak chose to include in the Conservative manifesto, but also over how they have been sold to the public. A Tory candidate said the premier had pledged five different tax cuts yet his key message in televised appearances has been to claim that Starmer would raise taxes by £2,000 ($2,530), a figure which has widely been criticized as dubious.

Even the Tory social media campaign, led by Sunak’s close aide Cass Horowitz, has provoked internal rage. A graphic implying Russian leader Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping would welcome Starmer as premier is seen by Conservative candidates as not only gutter politics, but embarrassing for the party. The worst was yet to come when, as the betting scandal was unfolding, the Tories’ X account posted an image of a roulette wheel. It was deleted after much mockery.

Two weeks from now Sunak may find that it was his gamble on a summer election that was the most damaging bet of all.

--With assistance from Joe Mayes, Ellen Milligan, Ailbhe Rea, James Woolcock and Anna Edwards.

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