Helen Goodman's geography gaffe doesn't warrant the blunderbuss

Kingdom Of Great Britain

Go on, admit it. We've all done it.

We've all embarrassed ourselves by getting place names muddled up or (far worse) confused an offspring's current partner with the previous one. But it's much more serious for a public figure, especially one dependent on votes where the gaffe was committed. Hi there Labour MP Helen Goodman, yes, it's you we're all talking about today.

In case you're so busy with the day job or Wayne Rooney's fitness regime that you haven't noticed, Goodman is the MP who opened the Ingleton village fair in her Bishop Auckland, County Durham constituency and spoke movingly of its limestone caves and waterfalls, its links with Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, she (or perhaps her researcher) seems to have Googled Ingleton's namesake 70 miles away in North Yorkshire.

The Tory newspapers have had a field day this morning – here's the Daily Mail's gleeful version – and who can blame them. Labour's share of the Bishop Auckland vote has slipped from its 1997 peak of 65%, when Salvation Army man Derek Foster (then Labour chief whip) was MP, to 39% in 2010, though it still looks pretty Tory-proof to me.

If there is any consolation for Goodman as she mends fences it must be that she's not alone. David Cameron mixed up Colchester and Chelmsford as recently as April during a local election foray into Essex, whose Towie self-importance as the hub of the universe is far greater than County Durham's these days.

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major, everyone in public life except the pope (who's infallible) has done it at one time or another. It's not just politicians either, of course. In New Zealand – which never gets enough attention, and feels the lack there of – they still talk of the night Cliff Richard came on stage and said "Hullo Auckland". But Auckland was last night, he was in Wellington at the time. Not to be confused with Bishop Wellington.

There's an expression for this, first used by globetrotters in Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy days, now by the rest of us. "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium." Perhaps the kaiser and his generals used it first, they were always popping into Belgium to stretch their legs and borders. We get the point: when on the move and busy it's easy to become disorientated. "I can see a river out of my hotel window, but what city am I in?" so a boozy old hack of my acquaintance once rang his newsdesk to inquire.

As so often in life, the real challenge for Helen, Cliff and for Dave is not the gaffe – it happens to us all – but how they handle it. Goodman is a cheerful, unstuffy ex-Treasury official (born in Nottinghamshire, raised next door in Derbyshire, since you ask) with a ready laugh who may be able to take the joke at her expense and be forgiven. She's already apologised for "an honest accident" and says her listeners told her right away. Who says voters switch off when an MP speaks?

Boris Johnson, of course, is Britain's premier gaffe merchant, capable of getting stuck on a zip wire and turning it into a personal triumph, as Cameron (not so able to laugh at himself) ruefully acknowledged when the London mayor did just that. Blair wasn't bad, if I'm still allowed to say that without being referred to the international criminal court. Do you remember when Cherie B was caught out cussing Gordon just before Tony's conference speech? "At least I know my wife won't run off with the bloke next door," he joked and defused the tension.

Bill Clinton, who had more of his share of troubles to explain away, was pretty good too. After the long, dull keynote speech he made at the 1988 Democratic convention (I was there and the only cheers he got was when he said "and finally" before droning on) he would never have become the successful nominee four years later if he hadn't taken his sax (and dark glasses) on the Saturday night TV circuit to grovel – and play Heartbreak Hotel. Barack Obama tries but finds it all harder.

Yet Goodman's role model – just this once – should be Ronald Reagan. The first time I attended one of his (rare) White House press conferences as a newcomer to Washington even I spotted so many presidential errors I thought the old boy would have to resign. But no, his spokesman (a Mr Speakes, as it happened) merely issued a statement saying: "The president mis-spoke on the following points" and it was solemnly reprinted in the verbatim coverage.

But Reagan had a quick wit and an "aw shucks" self-deprecating style that could disarm millions of would-be critics. He just got away with it. Here's a sample – including "trees cause more pollution than automobiles" to cheer up MP Goodman. It prompted "Killer Trees" car bumper stickers, but it didn't stop the old rascal winning.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 17th June 2014 13.12 Europe/London

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