Politicians say sorry like small children: through gritted teeth after a lengthy stalemate or quick, bright and breezy to avoid a telling off. So why should their political opponents chase apologies so fervently when neither approach communicates any real regret? Because politics is the blame game, and apologies are a way of keeping score.
Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom broke ranks by calling on George Osborne to say sorry for implicating Ed Balls in the fixing of Libor rates. But Tory Grandee Norman Lamont used more fitting language when he said the Chancellor had, ‘Overplayed his hand.’ This language tells us everything about Osborne’s accusation, the demand that he withdraw it, and the subsequent media storm. It’s all just a hand of political poker.
So how did the players perform? Osborne wasn’t dealt much, just a suggestion that people close to the previous Government put pressure on Barclays to fiddle the Libor figures. But he chose to make a big bet and implicate the Chancellor. When Bank of England Deputy Paul Tucker told the Treasury Select Committee that no Government figures pressured him to influence Barclays’ Libor numbers, the Chancellor was left holding nothing at all. That was his chance to fold with a quick apology.
Particularly since his aides had already set the record straight with a briefing to the BBC’s Nick Robinson. But he decided to stay in the game while the stakes increased and other senior figures like Foreign Secretary William Hague came to his defence. Now, there are few cards left that would turn his position round.
Politicians can apologise successfully. Apologise immediately or withdraw a remark and people will put it down to the heat of the moment. But try and make political capital from a situation that gets out of control and an apology is simply an embarrassment. No apology will improve the relationship between Osborne and Balls, and what does either care? Unless he means it, Osborne should simply sit tight while the row dies down and think more carefully before he throws political mud in future. He’s already lost the hand, it’s just a case of how badly.
Jon Bennett is a director at public relations and public affairs consultancy Linstock Communications