Research on counterfactuals (‘If only…’) has seldom considered the effects of counterfactual communication, especially in a defensive context. In three studies, we investigated the effects of counterfactual defences employed by politicians. We assumed that self-focused upward counterfactuals (‘If only I…, the outcome would have been better’) are a form of concession, other-focused upward counterfactuals (‘If only they…, the outcome would have been better’) are a form of excuse, and self-focused downward counterfactuals (‘If only I…, the outcome would have been worse’) are a form of justification. In Study 1, a counterfactual defence led to a more positive evaluation of the politician than a corresponding factual defence. Of the two types of defence, the counterfactual defence reduced the extent to which the politician was held responsible for the past event and was perceived as more convincing. In Study 2, counterfactual excuse and counterfactual justification were equally effective and led to a more positive evaluation of the politician than counterfactual concession. In Study 3, the higher effectiveness of counterfactual justification was independent from perceived ideological similarity with the politician, supporting the strength of this defence. These results show that counterfactual defences provide subtle communication strategies that effectively influence social judgements. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.