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Nick Clegg's Apology Over Tuition Fees Might Just Work

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Nick Clegg's apology over tuition fees comes at the start of party conference season | PA

It's the season for apologising. Over the past week we've seen quite a few public figures saying sorry for what was said, done or not done in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. Now Nick Clegg's getting in on the act over tuition fees, and while some people are never going to forgive the Lib Dems there are good reasons to suggest that Clegg's language and timing might just prove a masterstroke.

Nobody saw Clegg's act of contrition coming, although in some ways his apology for pledging not to increase tuition fees isn't a surprise because Lib Dems have been talking ruefully about this 2010 election promise a bit lately.

Newly-promoted minister Jo Swinson said on tuition fees a few months ago: "In opposition you can just take the purely populist route on every issue and also people don’t in quite the same way make sure that everything stacks up."

That's not quite the same as saying sorry, of course. Sorry is one of the most powerful words in the English language, which is why it's baffling that politicians don't use it more often. Remember the roar that went up in Derry when David Cameron used it, to apologise on behalf of the British government for the Bloody Sunday massacre?

No less significant was Boris Johnson's decision to go to Liverpool to personally apologise for his insensitive comments about Liverpudlians in the wake of the murder of Ken Bigley in Iraq. In both cases, it worked.

Contrast that with Tony Blair, who has never said sorry for the Iraq war, but even more controversially has never apologised for the "dodgy dossier". Even to his biggest supporters there remains something quite distasteful about Blair's abject refusal to be contrite for the dossier, which was devastating on far too many levels. Blair insists he never lied, but that's correct only semantically.

The situation is best expressed by Kevin Marsh, editor of Radio 4's Today programme at the time it was engulfed in the dossier row. He wrote recently in his blog:

"substitute for the word 'lied' the phrase 'created the truth' or 'misled the British public about the certainty of the intelligence and the conclusions that could be drawn from it' and most people might well take the view he and those around him are guilty as charged."

The furthest Blair has ever gone was to express "deep regret" for the 179 service personnel killed in Iraq. He didn't get around to expressing this "regret" until 2011, but that's not the same as saying sorry, and everyone knows it. Tony Blair's political reputation at home is arguably just as tarnished today as the day he left office five years ago.

Blair may not have apologised for Iraq but Ed Miliband sort-of did, saying it was "wrong" because the Allies didn't exhaust all the United Nations options before going to war. Actually, Miliband and the Labour party have said sorry quite a bit in the last year or so. Sorry for letting immigration get out of control, sorry for not regulating the bankers properly, there's been a stream of contrition from the New Labour years. Has it helped to build to what some polls suggest is Labour's current 15-point lead over the Tories?

There seem to be some rules which govern the success or failure of a political apology. Is it timely? Does it seem unforced? Is the language proportionate? If the answer to all three is yes, saying sorry publicly seems to do more good than harm.

Sometimes sorry hasn't worked even for Boris, who made another apology this week this time over The Spectator magazine's decision in 2004 to reprint false claims about drunken Hillsborough fans. Boris said this week that he was "very, very sorry" - the Hillsborough Families Support Group said it was too little, too late.

Equally David Cameron's apologies can sometimes seem just as off-the-cuff as the remarks which caused the offence in the first place. He said sorry to veteran Labour MP Denis Skinner for suggesting he start drawing his pension, he apologised to people with Tourette's for using the condition to poke fun at Ed Balls, he apologised for making a quasi-sexist jibe at backbench Tory Nadine Dorries for being "frustrated" during PMQs. In all cases these apologies seemed perhaps too quick and casual - and as such insincere.

On that basis, Clegg's contrition stands a fair chance of going some way to detoxifying his own brand and that of his party. It's come soon enough after the event to be relevant, but not so soon as to seem flippant. Equally it's far enough away from the next general election to not seem like an act of desperation, and comes at a time when Lib Dem leadership grumbles are a long way from becoming a clamour.

The manoeuvres by leadership rival Vince Cable on Newsnight, where he suggested he'd opposed the tuition fees pledge all along, indicate the Business Secretary thinks Clegg's apology might well pack a punch.

The contrary indicators are that the Lib Dems' poll ratings had tumbled substantially long before the tuition fees hike was announced in 2010 - they were already down to 10 percent in successive YouGov polls by the October of that year, more than a month before the fees hikes were announced. Some people will always hate the Lib Dems for getting into bed with the Tories, and the polling trends suggest tuition fees only worsened an existing problem.