Cynicism or leadership? Clegg’s ‘sorry’ gambit leaves Westminster bemused
The jury remains out on whether Nick Clegg's tuition fees apology has backfired or not, with bemusement and admiration balancing out mockery and anger online.
The Liberal Democrat leader's frank apology for having broken his pledge on raising tuition fees was originally greeted by a wall of consternation, but an auto-tuned version now set to be released as a charity single has boosted Clegg's gamble to win back lost supporters.
In a party political broadcast to be aired next Monday but released online yesterday the deputy prime minister said he was sorry for having made a "mistake" over higher education funding.
Summing up the broadcast's message with admirable brevity, the auto-tuned version sees the Lib Dem leader state in unequivocal terms: "I'm sorry / I'm sorry / the Liberal Democrats are sorry."
Although many quickly assumed the deputy prime minister was exposing himself to unlimited ridicule by permitting the video's release, many in the party expressed hope that it could end up boosting Clegg's battered credentials.
"It's double or quits," Mark Pack, co-editor of grassroots blog LibDemVoice told politics.co.uk.
"If this message turns out to work, the fact that people are making these pastiches spreads the message further. If it's a good message, that will actually be a benefit.
"I think what all of the remixes and pastiches of Nick Clegg's apology do is retain the essential point that he is saying sorry."
Bookmakers William Hill offered odds of 25/1 that Clegg's apology could reach number one.
"It is a very catchy tune, although I think the lyrics could do with a bit of work," William Hill spokesman Joe Crilly said.
"But there is a good chance that it could grab the top spot if it were to be released."
Pack said it was "sensible" of Clegg to address the political flak the coalition's junior party were facing for having broken their higher education promises.
The apology is being viewed as a major strategic shift in approach from the coalition's junior party, as it seeks damage limitation by conceding it made a major error of judgement while in opposition.
Each candidate made a campaign pledge before the 2010 general election that, if elected to government, the Lib Dems would abolish tuition fees outright. Amid massive protests in Westminster later that year, Lib Dem MPs voted through an increase in tuition fees which would see some students paying three times more than under Labour for their degree tuition.
"It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we shouldn't have made a promise we weren't absolutely sure we could deliver," Clegg tells voters in the video.
"I shouldn't have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around. Not least when the most likely way we'd end up in government was in coalition with Labour or the Conservatives, who were both committed to put fees up.
"I know that we fought to get the best policy we could in those circumstances. But I also realise that isn't the point. There's no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn't stick to it – and for that I am sorry."
Labour, perhaps sensing that the Liberal Democrats may benefit from Clegg's frank apology, has laid into the coalition's junior party. Deputy leader Harriet Harman said Clegg saying 'sorry' was "neither genuine nor heartfelt" and accused the Lib Dems of having "colluded" with Conservative ministers.
"People aren't stupid and no one will be fooled by Nick Clegg's phoney apology on the eve of his party conference," Harman said.
"Once again the party which called for honest politics will be trying to pull the wool over people's eyes.
"But the reality about the Lib Dems is a shameful record in government and broken promises."
The apology had prompted a broadly negative reaction from the online community. But Clegg's decision to allow satirical website The Poke release the video if all proceeds went to a Sheffield children's charity could have reversed its initial hostile reception.
Lib Dem Cabinet minister David Laws told the Today programme that every Liberal Democrat MP has "collective responsibility" for the tuition fees pledge – despite 21 Lib Dem backbenchers having rebelled against the reform.
"This was not just a promise from Nick. All of us appreciated that it was a tough budgetary environment," he insisted.
"We ought to have reflected in our manifesto that the only way we could have implemented this policy was in a coalition government and the other two parties were committed to increasing fees.
"If the Liberal Democrats had won 500 seats…of course it would have been technically possible to deliver this policy. It wasn't possible after the election…and that is why Nick has apologised."
Clegg will be hoping some liberal supporters who had been disillusioned by the party's decisions in government may be won back by the move, which comes before the Lib Dems gather in Brighton this weekend for their autumn conference.
His leadership has endured serious criticism from allies of business secretary Vince Cable this summer, leading to speculation that the party may wish to consider removing him as leader to increase its chances of holding seats at the next general election.
Cable confirmed he was "sceptical about the pledge" at the time, in a further move distancing himself from Clegg's leadership.
"But we agreed collectively to do it and I take my share of the responsibility," he told Newsnight.
"I signed the pledge on the basis that had we been in government on our own, which was the commitment, we would have put through that policy and we would have done so.
"It was an unwise commitment to have made and we regret that and that was the basis of the apology."
Pollster Ipsos Mori's September political monitor put Clegg's ratings at their worst ever level, down from 31% to 23%, while dissatisfaction with him has increased from 58% to 66%.
He even has a negative rating of minus eight among Lib Dem supporters, comparing to +42 and +21 for David Cameron and Ed Miliband respectively.
The Liberal Democrats overall increased their overall vote share to 13%, up two points, however. Labour were down one point to 41%. The Conservatives slipped two points to 30%.