Peter Hoskin

The politics of saying sorry

Patrick Wintour’s write-up of the continuing expenses scandal today contains a neat insight into a recent Cabinet meeting:

“Only one cabinet minister, Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, told his colleagues that if he had contributed to the problem through his expenses claims then he was quite willing to offer his apologies. No other cabinet minister followed his lead, even if there was a widespread view around the table that the only way to draw a line on the issue would be to ask miscreants to pay back some of their claims.”

There’s a lesson in all this for polticians. You sense that Burnham’s Cabinet colleagues have shied away from the s-word because they feel it would indicate culpability which, in turn, would be politically damaging.  I certainly think this is one of the factors which lay behind Brown holding off from an apology for so long. 

Yet David Cameron realised that the opposite is true: a parliamentary crisis such as this demands apologies from parliamentarians.  In this case, saying “sorry” – and, of course, showing that you mean it – has actually been the best thing to do, politically.  Maybe the Cabinet should have followed Burnham’s lead, after all.

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