"We made a pledge, we didn't stick to it - and for that I am sorry". So says Nick Clegg in his conference broadcast, a public apology which, if not quite unprecedented, certainly feels unusual.
Clegg certainly isn't the first politician to say sorry. Where once it was seen as a mark of weakness, today politicians of all colours are quick to apologise, whether for major policy or government failures, like for Bloody Sunday and the Hillsborough disaster, or lapses in judgement, like Cameron's apology for hiring Andy Coulson. Indeed the only politician who seems reluctant to apologise for anything these days is Mitt Romney.
But most politicians don't use their own political broadcasts to publicise their failings. A brave step, perhaps, and unfortunately for Nick Clegg, a step that I think is unlikely to help him recover his credibility or trust, for three reasons.
First, for an apology to be effective, it needs to be sincere, speedy and selfless. Clegg's fails on all counts. Two years on from the debate about tuition fees, he can hardly be said to be quick in recognising his mistake. And while Clegg may genuinely regret making this pledge, his motives in apologising now seem to stem more from his parlous poll ratings and an attempt to pre-empt conference discontent than a real desire to make amends. Hardly heartfelt, then.
Secondly, if Clegg's mea cupla really is intended to appease Lib Dem activists, it seems a deeply flawed plan. His carefully worded apology says sorry for supporting the pledge not to increase tuition fees, rather than for the coalition government's policy to do just that. It's difficult to see how this will help win favour with his party, as the vast majority of Lib Dems disagree with the policy, not the pledge. Rather than appeasing critics, the broadcast places him on the wrong side of his members again, reignites the debate about higher education funding and leads you to wonder what other policies he will admit to being wrong on. Overall, not a winning strategy.
Finally, Clegg's apology won't work because it raises, rather than resolves, concerns about what he stands for. Up until now, Clegg has appeared the unwilling partner, forced to cede ground to the Tories on tuition fees as a necessary condition of being part of the coalition. An uncomfortable role but one in which his motives are at least understandable. The apology puts paid to that perception. It now suggests Clegg was actually the unwilling partner in a Lib Dem election campaign, signing up to things he really didn't believe were right which he was ready to recant once in office. This serves to add further confusion over Clegg's beliefs and values and leaves him entering conference looking weaker not stronger. A bold step but one backwards.
In the end Clegg will be judged by his deeds in office not this apology. And that's why this is a missed opportunity. Instead of focusing on the past two years, Clegg could have used this moment to set out what he stands for and his vision for the final two years of the Parliament. In fact Clegg would have done well to take his own advice, given in that first election debate when he was riding high in popularity and everyone seemed to "agree with Nick". Talking about trust in politics, he used words that could just as well sum up how many people feel about him today: "I hear the words, they sound great. But you know it's not just what you say, it's what you do".
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