” So how about a Damehood, a ride in the Jag AND new double-glazing?”
Even before it all kicked-off, this mini-tragedy had the all edgy qualities of Borat at a W.I meeting. The Prologue had it all. We witnessed not-only the social skills of Borat, the communication skills of an accountant-farmer, the smile of a tomcat regurgitating a fur-ball and the dress-sense of a demobbed Albanian but there was a co-star! The co-star was an opinionated grandmother in a bizarre red-lapelled coat. This was the accident waiting to happen. AND.IT.WAS.GOOD!!
The electoral campaign was just one week too long for Gordon Brown. He had made it so far. Admittedly by this stage, the Labour Grandees’ fingernails were even shorter than Brown’s but it did look as if he may just fall over the line without too many injuries or accidents. Then Rochdale happened. Brown blundered into the first major gaffe.
An open microphone captured him being dismissively rude about a voter who had expressed an opinion.
Brown, apparently forgetting that he’d left a television microphone pinned to his chest, called 66-year-old Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman” as he was being driven from a public meeting where (he imagined) she had needled him on immigration.
Within minutes the bad-tempered aside had exploded across the media and within a couple of hours Brown was rushing back to Mrs Duffy’s home to beg her forgiveness and emailing his supporters to make clear he’d apologised.
The subsequent 24 hours have seen the cringe-inducing drama replayed on television, radio and the Internet . Murdoch’s Sky appears to have the whole thing on a loop. The debacle has dealt Brown a big setback on the eve of the last TV debate ahead of the May 6 vote.
Mrs Duffy, a retired widow and lifelong Labourite from a long line of Labour supporters met the prime minister at a campaign stop in Rochdale. She questioned him about the influx of eastern European immigrants. Nothing wrong with the question but Brown does not have the spontaneity to answer any question which does not afford him the opportunity to list Labour’s meagre achievements. Consequently, he was rattled. He was also aware that there are immigrant voters with television sets.
He attempted to answer her potentially emotive question with figures and statistics and began his customary sleep-inducing stumble through “facts” such as “X-number of immigrants had arrived” but “a large number of Brits and Immigrants had left“. He forgot that she was only interested in her own environment – Rochdale and not in UK statistics. In fact, one wonders whether he had been briefed at all about Rochdale.
He effectively brushed her question aside when he explained that Britons were also working in Europe. His aides sensed that Brown was running out of steam so he was quickly ushered into the ministerial Jaguar. As soon as he was cocooned in the Jag he relaxed and began to complain to an aide about the encounter from Hell.
“That was a disaster, they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous,” Brown is heard to say.
When asked what Duffy had said to upset him, Brown told the aide: “Everything. She’s just a sort of bigoted woman.”
Mrs Duffy had questioned Brown on taxes, university fees and Britain’s record deficit of £152.84 billion. She had displayed no bigotry whatsoever and her question on immigration was just that – a request for information. She had expressed no personal view about immigrants.
Brown’s negative reaction was much more to do with his own shortcomings as a communicator rather than Mrs Duffy’s robust questioning.
Brown’s gaffe was immediately broadcast and he was then grilled about it by Jeremy Vine on his Radio 2 show. The show was televised. Slumped over with his head in his hand, Brown said he realised he had made a mistake and regretted the remarks.
“He’s an educated person, why has he come out with words like that?” Duffy said. “He’s calling an ordinary woman who’s just come up and asked questions … a bigot.” It is still not clear whether Mrs Duffy, her interviewed relatives and all the other Rochdale Vox Pops know exactly what a “bigot” is but they all seem to think that it is a “bad word” – and in this context is is a very bad word – especially for Gordon Brown.
Duffy said Brown had initially appeared receptive as they discussed policy. “I thought he was understanding but he wasn’t, was he?” said Duffy, who said she had planned to vote Labour but would now most likely abstain.
Brown later telephoned Duffy to apologise, then unexpectedly showed up at her home. Damage limitation time.
Smiling broadly but awkwardly, Brown emerged 40 minutes later and said “Gillian” had accepted his apology. Mrs Duffy remained indoors and refused to face the cameras. Overnight, the Red-tops have been pushing envelopes with financial offers through her letter-box and it is rumoured that she has agreed to a deal with one of them.
“She has accepted that there was a misunderstanding and she has accepted my apology,” Brown told reporters through gritted teeth. “If you like, I am a penitent sinner.”
It seems that a statement such as ” She’s just a sort of bigoted woman” is quite unequivocal and Gordon Brown has not yet explained where the “misunderstanding “ occurred. The fact is that he was caught bang to rights and no amount of mealy-mouthed excuses will help him.
As to whether he should have gone back to Mrs Duffy’s house for the 40-minute grovel is debatable. There is a saying that when you have dug yourself into a hole, sometimes it is a good idea to stop digging.
The political consequences of Brown’s blunder could be severe since he already is third in opinion polls and desperate to show his supposedly statesmanlike credentials to dispatch his less experienced rivals. David Cameron and Nick Clegg could never have dreamed of being presented with such a luscious target so close to polling day and it will be interesting to see what their speech writers have prepared for tonight’s final televised debate.
In an ironic twist, Brown’s campaign team had even overhauled its election strategy this week — betting that more contact between their leader and ordinary people would revive his flagging election hopes. Had they consulted ANY Public Relations company, they would have been advised to keep Brown in a box until after next Thursday’s vote.
Brown had a previous gaffe last year when he sent a handwritten note to a mother whose son was killed in Afghanistan. He had misspelled the soldier’s name and once again, was forced into an embarrassingly grovelling apology.
Brown’s foes could barely disguise their delight at his high-profile cock-up. “The thing about general elections is that they reveal the truth about people,” said George Osborne in a remarkably restrained statement.
Charlie Whelan, a former aide to Brown, used Twitter to defend the former leader. “Who has not let off steam under stress and strain of a campaign?” he wrote. “He’s apologized, move on.” No surprises there.
Chancellor Alistair Darling offered, “This is something that he knows he shouldn’t have said.”
Even the reptilian Lord Mandelson briefly stopped his tongue-flicking to say “Gordon didn’t mean it. Ssssssssss. Trusssssst in me.”
Bookmaker William Hill said the gaffe could dent Brown’s election chances, immediately lengthening the odds of a victory for Labour to 16/1 . William Hill’s spokesman Graham Sharpe said. “It could prove to be a very damaging blow to his chances of retaining power.” The bookies are seldom wrong.
Many commentators say that in order to recoup credibility and votes, Gordon Brown will have to produce a bravura performance at tonight’s debate. Prepare for smiles and statistics.
p.s. The open microphone was transmitting “pooled” sound to the media, i.e they all had access to it and they all heard Brown’s remarks. The company which released Brown’s words was Sky.