General Election 2024

Election panel: Should politicians apologise for their mistakes?

Our panel of experts on whether it’s better to own your errors

June 07, 2024
David Cameron standing in for Rishi Sunak at the D-Day commemorations. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo
David Cameron standing in for Rishi Sunak at the D-Day commemorations. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s election season. Prospect has invited writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues. 

Yesterday we asked them about whether voters want to see politicians’ personal sides. Today, after Rishi Sunak’s apology for leaving D-Day events early, we asked our panel if politicians should say sorry for their mistakes—or double down. And we asked what they were expecting to see at tonight’s multi-party debate.

Emily Lawford: Is it usually better for politicians to apologise or ride out the criticism? And what are your predictions for tonight’s debate?

Matthew d’Ancona: In Sunak’s case, a rapid apology for his astonishing decision to leave the D-Day commemorations early for a campaign interview was essential—a necessary but far from sufficient step to rectify an inexplicable unforced error. As a general rule: saying sorry quickly is better unless you really believe you are in the right and will be seen to be so.

As for tonight: it will be a scrum in which Penny Mordaunt will try to minimise Nigel Farage’s impact and Angela Rayner will pummel Mordaunt over Sunak’s dodgy tax dossier and early exit from Normandy. Expectations will be high of Farage so there is a risk that he will fall short or try to dominate proceedings too brashly.

Tim Bale: Most politicians stick with the “Never apologise, never explain” mantra, especially in the middle of an election campaign. If anything, they may even choose to double down when they're caught out—Sunak and the £2,000 being an obvious example. But sometimes you're damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Theresa May tried hysterically styling it out on the dementia tax—who can forget her claiming “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed” to a room full of incredulous journalists? And look where that got her. The optics of Sunak’s D-Day early departure are so damaging, however, that it’s difficult to see how he could have done anything else. I suspect, though, that the damage is done.

Frances Ryan: I think “prevention is better than cure” is a phrase that can be applied to politicians. No decent political adviser should be worrying about when or if their candidate should apologise—they should be working to ensure they don’t have things to apologise for in the first place. Whilst every campaign can make errors, Sunak’s was so glaringly obvious you would think it would have been visible from the ITV studios across the Channel. A PM trying to woo conservative pensioners disrespects veterans. It’s staggering, really.

Peter Kellner: I agree with Matt. Sunak’s mistake was to return early from Normandy. Better to close down the controversy with an humiliating apology than double down and cause the row to run and run. But make no mistake, his choice was the disaster of apologising versus the catastrophe of doubling down. As we discussed yesterday, elections are at least as much about character as policy. Either way, Sunak was showing himself up as a leader with poor judgement. His previous errors—getting wet, speaking at the Titanic museum—were mildly amusing. They didn’t really matter. The D-Day/apology episode does matter. Sunak must feel wretched. Serves him right.

Tim Bale: As for the debate, I won't be watching—on the assumption that it'll be a complete and utter zoo. Even if it’d be fun to see Angela Rayner take Farage on directly, she’s probably best off letting him go after Penny Mordaunt and then, if there's anything left of her after that, mop up the rest.

Zoë Grünewald: Politicians should always be prepared to apologise. Mistakes are human and can often bring an end to a scandal fairly quickly. In Rishi Sunak’s case, the crime is not just the disrespect to veterans and the memorial service, but also that it’s such an epic miscalculation of the public’s expectations of their prime minister and entirely undermines the traditionalist campaign he’s been fighting. His apology has achieved barely anything—the criticisms rumble on. It's hard to think of a more damaging blunder—it not only wrecks his core vote but it, unfortunately, shows voters who Rishi Sunak really is. He has handed Labour and Reform their most successful attack line to date.

I won't be watching the debate—but I suspect it'll be the Nigel Farage show.

Peter Hitchens: Proper apologies require character and courage, and most sensible people will be willing to forgive someone who says sorry promptly and without quibbles. Trying to argue himself out of it would have bern disastrous, for, as Ronald Reagan long ago warned, “While you’re explaining, you’re losing.” As for tonight’s melee, I have no idea. Multilateral debates can end up anywhere. Even three is a crowd. But Angela Rayner is the one who can do the most damage to her own party.

Philip Collins: It is an extraordinary error to make. What on earth are they doing? One of the great advantages of being PM is looking statesmanlike at serious events. Political calculation, quite apart from a sense of patriotic propriety, would surely lead you to conclude that attendance at such an event was a good idea. Yet Sunak’s team demanded a slot with ITV that meant the PM cut short his visit. It shows the PM and his team have the political instincts of someone who does the spreadsheets at Goldman Sachs. He can and should apologise but it is too late.

On apologies more generally, it was always something directed at Blair. Why would he not apologise about the Iraq war? I was in a minority who thought he ought not apologise for the good reason that he was not sorry. He was sorry about casualties of course, as he said often. But he did not regret the initial decision and therefore an apology would have been insincere.

Matthew Lesh: Politicians are human and, when they make mistakes and are genuinely apologetic, should be entitled to say sorry and move on. In Rishi’s case, the apology was sensible, even if it will likely achieve little in a campaign that is falling off the rails. 

However, beyond this case, fake apologies merely for PR in the face of an onslaught or attempted cancellation can be a mistake. Not only does it raise authenticity issues, but also is an admission of guilt. This is often not enough for the critics, who will not forgive and just demand more punishment.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got a question for the panel? Email