David Cameron was “extremely sorry” that ex-pats trying to escape the political and social meltdown in Libya had been let down by the foreign office who failed to get a plane to Tripoli to evacuate them. He was sorry that he hadn’t raised the issue of child benefit cuts before the election. He was sorry that the plan to sell off our forests had been such an unpopular shambles. The list of open and frank apologies from Cameron grows by the week. If there is one thing you can’t accuse the Prime Minister of, it’s a lack of humility.
However, in politics, as in life, there is a fine line between humility and incompetence. We are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who can find it in themselves to recognise their mistakes. But if it keeps happening, people start to ask why the need to repeatedly apologise arises. Couldn’t some of these issues have been avoided in the first place? There is something reassuring about a spouse who says sorry for not putting the bins out, not washing up, leaving clothes scattered around the bedroom (draw your own conclusions as to whether this comes from personal experience). After a while though, this starts to niggle. Rather than say sorry, why not just not do it? The loved one goes from endearingly humble to irritatingly selfish.
I have a sense, coming (as Dave does) from a PR background, that he’s been told to apologise whenever anything goes wrong. It’s the first rule of crisis management. Customers and voters hate it when people in power fail to acknowledge responsibility. In politics too, a failure to accept mistakes haunted Gordon Brown, who perhaps saw it as an admission of weakness. Cameron is in danger of pushing his media training too far. The apologies are racking up now and the country has started to notice. What might have been seen as a strength is turning rapidly into a weakness.
Apparently this string of mistakes has panicked Cameron into drawing more power back into Number 10. If mistakes are to be made, they will be Dave’s mistakes. He wants to avoid the reflected humiliation of Michael Gove’s repeated calamities in Education (he’s now been successfully challenged in court over his incompetent approach to scrapping Building Schools for the Future). However this approach comes with risks. Undoubtedly, it’ll be harder to cut Ministers adrift in the humiliating way he did to Caroline Spelman over the forests debacle. So the next apology may not have the whiff of a parent saying sorry for a child (Gove, Spelman or Hague), but will be that very dangerous thing – another chip away at the foundations of his political competence.