Leading article: An apology of an apology

When people are accused of doing something wrong, they tend – if there is any substance to the charge – to try to move the goalposts. Politicians are no different from the rest of us in this respect. It is just that their evasions are more public.

Gordon Brown's repeated line about a problem that came "out of America" has begun to grate, even though we accept that it is a large part of the truth. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday in November, for instance, found that 57 per cent of voters disagreed that "Gordon Brown should take most of the blame for the rising unemployment rate".

No one else predicted the downturn, apart from a few doom-mongers who, like stopped clocks, were bound to be right eventually, so why should Mr Brown be blamed for failing to see it coming?

However, his refusal to admit that it was a mistake to promise an "end to boom and bust" made him look as if he were simply denying reality. Last week he was accused by Jon Cruddas, one of his own backbenchers, of lacking "emotional intelligence". We were bound, therefore, to end up where we are today. The Prime Minister is under pressure to say sorry. With a wave of anti-politician anger sweeping through the low-paid end of the profitable energy industry, he risks looking out of touch if he fails to express some form of contrition. Hence today's pre-recorded interview with the BBC's Jon Sopel.

Yet that interview could never have been enough. He was never going to admit that David Cameron is right to say that he did not fix the roof when the sun was shining. Not least because in his speech to Labour's annual conference he vehemently rebutted the charge – moving the goalposts to declare that Labour did fix the roofs, walls, equipment and staff pay of schools and hospitals. Which is beside the point, because the complaint is that this spending was on the never-never, increasing public borrowing during the economic boom.

He was never going to accept in this weekend's interview that he was partly responsible for the severity of the bust. But he could have accepted what everyone knows is true: that the regulatory system he designed had been found wanting.

It was suggested privately by the Prime Minister's advisers last week that Mr Brown could not allow any hint of concession in the male-rutting atmosphere of the House of Commons, but that he would accept, in the calmer atmosphere of a TV studio, that he had made mistakes. Instead, all that he said was that "toughening up the regulatory system" was "an acceptance that it wasn't strong enough". It was a classic non-apology apology.

We are reminded of 2004, when Tony Blair was advised by Mark Penn, a Labour pollster, to say "sorry" for the errors in making the case for war in Iraq. Mr Blair had the s-word in the text of his party conference speech but ended up saying something quite different: "I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam."

Mr Blair was quite good at apologising for things for which he was not responsible, such as the Irish potato famine. But generally politicians – like the rest of us – are adept at insulating themselves from direct personal responsibility. George Bush shied away from a direct apology for the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison when he met King Abdullah II of Jordan: "I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners."

Colin Powell, his Secretary of State, memorably described this as using the "third person passive once removed".

Only last week, Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying bishop, offered another striking example of the art form, conspicuously failing to repudiate his "imprudent" remarks and apologising – to the Pope, and only for having caused him "so much unnecessary distress and problems".

Of course, the demand that politicians say sorry could be a displacement activity in the face of problems that make us feel powerless. Just as lottery ticket sales have risen and women at the Bank of England are advised to wear heels and lipstick, the recession prompts us to demand an apology from the man in charge.

It may be unfair to expect Mr Brown to apologise for failing to raise taxes that we did not want him to raise, or for regulatory failures that no one else pointed out. But Mr Cruddas is right about emotional intelligence. The Prime Minister needs to hit the right note of humility before anyone will listen to what he has to say about the future. And, as anyone who has ever been in the wrong should know, saying sorry after you have been asked to apologise is too late.