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Leading article: A matter of character

Rather than basking in the afterglow of the G-20 summit, as he might have hoped, the Prime Minister has spent his Easter holiday writing letters. Some were personal, and properly contrite – to those, including the Conservative leader and the shadow Chancellor – who were slurred in the now notorious emails, sent by his media adviser, Damian McBride. One, to the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, was more of a gesture for public consumption, setting out how the code of conduct that applies to special advisers should, be tightened up.

Gordon Brown's letters are the closest he is going to come to the formal apology demanded by his opponents. He calls the offending emails "a matter of great regret", describes the allegations made as "unsubstantiated claims" and says he has "taken responsibility" by accepting Mr McBride's resignation and making clear that such actions do not belong in the political culture. This strikes a different tone from the self-righteous distancing coming from No 10 and Labour ministers since the story broke.

The harm, though, has been done – and a lot of it. Mr McBride was working for the Prime Minister. The emails were sent from his office. Who knows, if they had not come to light, whether they might not have been acted on for campaign purposes. The story may not be as damaging to politicians in voters' minds as the never-ending revelations about MPs' expenses – the public by and large probably regards politics as an even nastier business than it mostly is. But it personally wounds Mr Brown in a way that the expenses saga does not.

It is not only that he took office as Prime Minister with a promise to banish "spin". It is that his long association with Mr McBride casts aspersions on his remaining claims to public respect: the widespread belief that he takes a high-minded approach to politics and his reputation for common decency. Neither the adjustment to the code for special advisers – always an awkward presence in Whitehall – nor private letters of regret to the injured parties can undo what has been done. Character, deceptively perhaps, had been Mr Brown's strength. Now he looks like all the rest.