Editorial: A misjudged apology, and a leader in retreat

Clegg's act of contrition is too clever by half. And it has rebounded on him


For a leader to make a carefully worded, half-hearted apology is often worse than making no apology at all, and Nick Clegg makes a naïve error if he assumes he can sway a single doubter by saying "sorry" for his pre-election pledge to oppose an increase in student fees. On a crude strategic level his declaration has rebounded on him, giving broadcasters a fresh and legitimate excuse to re-run those excruciatingly embarrassing pre-election broadcasts showing Clegg passionately arguing against any increase, and with dark irony linking his argument with the need to restore trust in politics.

More fundamentally the act of contrition was too clever by half. Students and some other voters are angered by the entire sequence of events – the pre-election pledge and the policy that followed, the tripling of tuition fees. There is little evidence to suggest that they differentiate between parts of the sequence and so they will not be reassured by an apology for the first part but not the second.

Leaving aside the whirl of electoral calculations, Clegg has a case as far as the substance of the policy is concerned. Although a 200 per cent increase in fees was too big a leap in a single move, the methods for repaying the loans were fair and far from punitive. But that is besides the point in terms of the politics of perception and the undeniable breach of trust that the policy has come to represent. Clegg's apology is likely to re-ignite a sense that the Liberal Democrat leader opts for disingenuous public declarations. He genuinely believes that the error was the pre-election pledge and not the policy that followed, but he made the pledge, secured a significant electoral benefit from it, and has to live with the consequences now.

The apology is also mistaken in suggesting that the reversal on fees is the reason for Clegg's bleak personal ratings. It is a symbol of a wider sense of betrayal. Indeed he has stated that the NHS reforms might damage his party more. What is irrefutable is that the polls for the party and its leader are dire and the reasons extend beyond a single policy.

If the economy improves, Clegg could argue that he and his party played a pivotal role in addressing an economic crisis of historic magnitude while ensuring that the Conservatives were constrained on other fronts. That is his only hope of reviving his and his party's fortunes. Limited acts of contrition never work, especially when they are made by a leader so obviously fighting to save both his leadership and his party from electoral meltdown.

Under huge pressure, Tony Blair tried to display a hint of contrition over Iraq in his later speeches and interviews, but he could not really do so because he believed that the war was "the right thing to do", as he put it. The occasional attempts at narrowly defined contrition did not convert or reassure his opponents. Clegg is under similar pressure over his leadership as Blair was then. Like Blair over Iraq, Clegg does not really believe the policy on top-up fees was wrong, so an "apology" looks desperate and calculating, which it partly is.

Even disillusioned voters must accept that Clegg has remained calm in the face of intimidating storms. Yet since his return from the summer break he has shown some signs of insecurity, proposing a wealth tax without any detail and now, with his top-up fees apology, seeking a cathartic moment that risks delivering the opposite of what he intended.

The past has happened and cannot be unmade. Now Clegg needs to stop looking back. He shares in a partnership that his previous supporters have little inclination to forgive, and his apology won't change those feelings. But there are still important, progressive contributions that the Liberal Democrat leader can make to the Coalition.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping child abuse taking place right now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower