Peter Hoskin

Saying sorry

Saying sorry
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Matthew Parris's notebook in the Times today contains an anecdote which deserves repeating:

"Twenty years ago a political aide working at the heart of the office of the leader of the Conservative Party was exposed as having dispatched a wholly inappropriate communication. It was to a woman who had written complaining to Margaret Thatcher about her council house.

The aide had replied that she should be grateful to have a taxpayer-subsidised house at all. Splashed across the press and coming as it had from the Boss's office, the letter was rude and stupid.

Thatcher knew what to do. 'I'm so very sorry' was a headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror on March 30, 1979. She had sent by courier a handwritten apology to the woman. Explaining that she had known nothing of the letter (this was true), she described her own anguish at its contents. 'I can only apologise,' she said, and then, again, 'I'm so very sorry.' The aide (who was leaving the office anyway) was told that if the media asked, they'd be informed he had been sacked.

Hopefully, Labour printed three million copies of that Mirror page as an election leaflet. But the offended lady's response had helped to kill the story: 'I feel the apology is justified and I'm pleased Mrs Thatcher was brave enough to own up,' she said.

That aide was me. I had wanted to defend myself by publishing the woman's first letter, but Margaret Thatcher's reaction was unhesitating.

Say sorry, fast, unconditionally, before anyone asks us to. Then shut up." If Brown hopes to draw anything like a line under Smeargate, then you feel that the least he can do is to apologise.

P.S. Jonathan Isaby has put together a great list of the last 10 times the PM has said "sorry" in the Commons.  And what was he apologising for?  Things the Tories had done...