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Sorry Is the Hardest Word for Politicians

09/03/2014 22:13 GMT | Updated 09/05/2014 10:59 BST

Most of us say sorry a hundred times a day: when we bump into someone; when we're late; when we forget to do something. We never give it a second thought. But most of us are not politicians.

Politicians don't 'do' sorry. With the exception of Nick Clegg, who can say sorry with some considerable style and start memes with equal aplomb, most politicians would rather engage in various forms of linguistic gymnastics rather than let the actual word 'sorry' escape from their lips. Some politicians have even refined the complex art of saying sorry by proxy: Tony Blair employed this to perfection: "I have said we are sorry and I say it again".

But there is some history behind politicians' relationship with the word 'sorry'. Pre-John Major, it's very hard to find any politician of note who would even consider the word part of their public-facing vocabulary. Margaret Thatcher, for example, only used the word in the negative, basically to say she was not sorry. But things have moved on and there is a new vogue for saying sorry for historical events - David Cameron apologised for Bloody Sunday, Tony Blair was happy to apologise for the 1840s' Irish potato famine, Gordon Brown apologised for the treatment of Alan Turing. But saying sorry for anything more prosaic is still extremely difficult for senior politicians.

Now we all know that saying sorry can be dangerous. Sometimes saying sorry can mean you're accepting liability. For example, Lord Rennard's lawyers would be very unhappy if he said sorry right now. But that's not an excuse in all cases, all situations, all the time. Take Harriet Harman and the PIE scandal. Yes, we don't have all the facts - the water is muddied and the Daily Mail does have an agenda - but time is not on Ms Harman's side and nor is the weight of evidence. And now Patricia Hewitt has offered some form of apology, wouldn't it be more sensible for Ms Harman to say sorry right now and get it out of the way? It's incredibly likely that at some point down the road she will have to say the dreaded word anyway. Why not just get it over with right now? The longer you wait to say sorry the harder it gets.

But all apologies are not same. The thing politicians fail to realise is that we, the public, want something very specific from them. We want them to say the actual words 'I am sorry' - those words in that order. Not, like Eric Morecambe, all the right words just not necessarily in the right order. We definitely don't want them to sidestep the sorry and go straight to the 'I apologise', feel 'regret' and 'accept responsibility'. We don't want them to feel 'deep sorrow', accept they 'got it wrong' or be 'accountable' right up front. We need them to say sorry first and mean it. If they can bring themselves to say they're 'very sorry' or extremely sorry' or 'really, really sorry' then all the better. After they've said sorry we are happy for them to have 'got it wrong' and feel 'regret'. But in the first instance they need to utter the magic words.

So why don't politicians say sorry? What's the bottom line? Well that's like asking why senior politicians don't, in the main, answer a straight question. They don't answer a straight question because their line to take on any given topic is written down and agreed beforehand. When they're live on TV that line to take does not suddenly and miraculously change depending on the question they're asked - it stays the same, obviously. That means most politicians repeat themselves - because they are repeating the fall-back line to take. And the more aggressive the questioning, the more likely they are to retreat behind the headline line to take. Saying sorry is similar. As a senior government politician you don't say sorry. You just don't. Your line to take does not include the word sorry. In extremis you feel regret; you accept responsibility; you feel accountable. But, because you didn't write your own lines to take, someone else did that, you never, ever say: I'm sorry.