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Thursday, February 17, 2011 

The politics of apologising.

A member of parliament stepping up to the dispatch box to make an apology is a rare, strange, but welcome sight to behold. Generally, politicians only ever say sorry when forced into it, as is required when parliament has been misled, always accidentally, never deliberately, or when the time comes to apologise for a past government outrage or misdeed which the current generation can hardly be held personally responsible for. Hence Tony Blair apologised about the Irish potato famine and expressed "deep sorrow" for the British role in the slave trade, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, yet could never find the right words when it came to the very real role we had in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of servicemen. When he did murmur a few platitudes at the end of his second performance in front of the Chilcot inquiry, it was in the words of those observing, "too late".

The obvious idea behind Caroline Spelman standing up and despite her claims to the contrary, humiliating herself was that it's always difficult to strike the right balance between being conciliatory and critical when someone has already admitted that they've been in the wrong, as Mary Creagh went on to show. Delivering the political equivalent of a kick to the head when they've gone down on the floor voluntarily doesn't come over well, even if it might have been deserved. There was also something of the show trial about the whole spectacle, though: Spelman wasn't really apologising on the behalf of the government; she was, as she said, taking "full responsibility for the situation". Much as the Conservatives are currently preaching about personal responsibility, it seems rather unfair for Spelman, patronising as she is, to take all of the blame. After all, whatever happened to cabinet responsibility? Didn't they nod and say nothing when it was discussed, even though their backbenchers must have told them how it was playing with their constituents? Indeed, didn't the vast majority of MPs in the coalition vote down the opposition amendment tabled only two weeks ago, a grand total of three MPs from each party rebelling?

If anything signalled that the policy of putting forests up for sale was to be cut off at the root, it was Damian Green's failure to put up anything even resembling a defence of it on Question Time a fortnight ago. When you consider that ministers in the past have defended far worse things on the show with much greater tenacity even if they didn't personally believe in the case they had to make as a member of the government, it showed just doomed the "consultation" was from the beginning.

The question therefore has to be how it came to be put forward in the first place, as it wasn't in the coalition agreement or in either party's manifesto, and furthermore how it was accepted as anything approaching a good idea. As loathsome a part of modern politics as focus groups are, surely even a couple of sessions would have shown just how unpopular and indefensible the policy was. It shouldn't have even came to that: if there's two things everyone loves, it's dumb, defenceless animals and trees, as long as they're not casting shadow on their garden. You can do just about anything you like to people and get away it, as the welfare reform plans and cuts in general show; befoul or threaten nature and you'll soon have a petition with 500,000 signatures on your desk. It's why the donkey sanctuary in Devon gets £20 million a year in donations while three which provide services for women who have suffered domestic violence and abuse received £17m combined.

Ultimately, it has to be the prime minister that takes overall responsibility, and it's further evidence that David Cameron is both unwilling to do so and that less than a year in he's already out of touch with public opinion. Some are blaming the flux as Andy Coulson has departed and his new media team are bedding in, but it goes beyond that. This early into a parliament a prime minister shouldn't have to admit to not being happy about a policy when asked about it by the increasingly effective opposition leader. It smacks of casual arrogance and a laxity from all involved. Like with yesterday, it also shows just how hopeless the Liberal Democrats continue to be at urging sanity to prevail; the influence they're supposed to wield either doesn't exist in reality or is ignored and brushed aside just as dissent was under New Labour.

Today's embarrassment will be shrugged off and eventually forgotten about, especially as the real worst is yet to come. It does however provide one valuable lesson: that this government can be browbeaten into u-turns when public opinion is seen to be overwhelming. That should warm the hearts of all those currently organising resistance.

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