Analysis: How Maria Miller fell short in the art of political grovelling

Had the erstwhile culture secretary followed such exemplars of the political apology as Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and Michael Gove she might have averted her downfall.

Maria Miller: succumbed to pressure to resign on Tuesday night
Maria Miller: succumbed to pressure to resign on Tuesday night

The trio have been named by political observers as figures whose careers were kept on track by a well-delivered ‘sorry’.

Mark Harper and David Laws were also praised, albeit they tendered their resignations, for handing their personal crises with contrition and going quickly, thus making it easier for the PM to recall them later.

Unlike Miller, who left many observers feeling that she might have been able to keep her job had she made a better fist of her moment in the spotlight last Thursday.

Ordered to apologise by the Commons standards committee for her attitude towards the inquiry into her expenses claims by the Parliamentary standards commissioner, the MP for Basingstoke delivered a grudging 32-second statement in the House.

"It makes an enormous difference if an apology is done with conviction and not out of duty," comments Portland partner and former Sun political editor George Pascoe-Watson.

But rather than criticising Miller directly he adds: "Part of the problem here is that MPs genuinely feel aggrieved that they are being positioned as corrupt by the press. Some MPs get treated more fairly than others. It’s not a level playing field."

Former Liberal Democrat head of media Sean Kemp, who advised some of his party’s MPs on dealing with the 2009 expenses furore, believes Miller’s response was lacking.

She should have been more sincere but should also have expanded on points where the inquiry found in her favour, says Kemp, who moved in February from deputy head of press at Number 10 to join public affairs consultancy Open Road as a senior consultant.

He contrasts her performance with that of her predecessor Jeremy Hunt, who argued his corner when he faced the Commons in 2012 under intense pressure over his role in News Corporation’s attempted takeover of BSkyB.

"MPs, like other people, don’t want to embarrass themselves in public and often end up going for a halfway house where they tick the box of having said sorry," he says. "But a churlish apology is maddening."

Bloomberg political correspondent Rob Hutton agrees: "Miller was not just too brief but also didn’t properly apologise, even in the exchange of letters with the Prime Minister when she resigned. She didn’t address the specific criticism from the standards committee that she hadn’t engaged with the process."

Hutton offers tongue-in-cheek advice on making an ‘unapology’ in his forthcoming book about the use of language by politicians and business leaders, Would They Lie To You? "The key to a good unapology is that those who wanted you to give it should be simultaneously unsatisfied and unable to say what it lacks," he writes.

On a more serious note, he says one example of a well-delivered apology rescuing a political career was Michael Gove facing public outrage about his expenses in 2009.

"I was at Gove’s meeting with his constituents along with other media. He was there for two hours letting people vent their feelings without trying to argue with them but apologising and explaining why he claimed what he claimed. He left them with nowhere to go, which is a good approach."

Outside the expenses arena, Tony Blair’s apology on the BBC in 1997 is cited by PLMR founder Kevin Craig. Blair said sorry for mishandling the disclosure of Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s £1m donation to Labour, which had prompted suspicion about his government’s motives for exempting the sport from a tobacco sponsorship ban.

For Open Road’s chief executive Graham McMillan the quintessential example of an apology saving a political career was Paddy Ashdown’s ‘pants down’ moment in 1992. Having learned that on the following day The Sun was publishing a story he had had an affair, Ashdown took control by calling a broadcast press conference to confess his wrongdoing and managed to ride out events.

Matt Carter, a former Labour general secretary who runs communications consultancy Message House, says: "An effective apology needs to be done quickly, with meaning, taking personal responsibility for what's gone wrong and offered without reservation."

Miller, who has since sought redemption by donating her £17,000 ministerial pay-off to charity, is no doubt ruing not having followed such advice.

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