Brown's common-touch bid backfires with 'bigot' gaffe
Published 29/04/2010 | 05:00
GORDON Brown's visit to England's north west had begun with laughter and an impromptu walkabout at a hairdressers.
Within an hour, he was sitting in a radio studio, head in hands, as he contemplated the ruinous impact of a blunder which could derail his entire election campaign.
Instead of proving he could connect with the ordinary voter in the street, as his strategists had hoped he would do, Mr Brown insulted Gillian Duffy, a lifelong Labour voter, and ended up standing on the driveway of her Rochdale home, telling the watching world that he was a "penitent sinner" after apologising to her in person for calling her bigoted.
Just a week before polling day, the image of the 66-year-old widow's shocked reaction at being told of the prime minister's off-camera insult will stay in the minds of many voters as they enter polling stations.
"What was bigoted in what I said?" asked a crestfallen Mrs Duffy, upset and angry that a question about immigration could somehow have been interpreted as racist.
Yet the chance encounter between the pensioner and the prime minister might never have happened had Mr Brown's schedule not been put back by an earlier unplanned visit to The Academy hair salon in Oldham. During a question and answer session at a nearby community centre, Sue Fink, the salon's owner, had offered Mr Brown a free trim.
"My grandson's there so you have got an opportunity to kiss a gorgeous baby," she said. "Are you going to come?"
The prime minister joked: "She's an entrepreneur," before sending his security guards scrambling to prepare the way.
Labour staffers were ecstatic at his charming response.
Here, finally, was an opportunity to dispel criticism that their leader was too robotic, too cautious, altogether uncomfortable dealing with people.
Never mind that the visit put him behind schedule for his next event in Rochdale, where he was to watch young offenders clearing litter from a cycle path. The delay ensured that Mr Brown was squarely in the path of Mrs Duffy, a retired council worker who used to look after handicapped children, when she set out to buy a loaf of bread.
As she said later: "I was walking up the street and I asked the police 'Is Gordon Brown here?' and they said yes, so I came up and I thought, 'well I'll ask him what he's going to do about the national debt'."
Mrs Duffy had stood at the back of the crowd, and voiced her view that the economy was "bankrupt" to anyone who would listen. One or two camera crews began filming her. Spotting an opportunity to prove that he was unafraid of ordinary voters, Sue Nye, one of the prime minister's closest aides, grabbed Mrs Duffy by the hand, cleared a path through the circle of reporters, and brought her face to face with Mr Brown.
Her questions seemed reasonable enough -- why her pension was taxed, whether her grandchildren would be able to afford to go to university, the state of the deficit -- and then came one about immigration.
"All these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?" she asked.
Mr Brown handled the encounter with aplomb, joking, as he departed that she was wearing the "right colour" -- she had red lapels on her coat.
Mrs Duffy had clearly enjoyed their conversation, and would, as usual, be voting Labour. "Seems a nice man," she said.
However, the prime minister considered that the exchange had gone less well than she did. Scrambling into his chauffeur-driven Jaguar, with the microphone from earlier interviews still attached to his jacket, he moaned to trusted aide Justin Forsyth: "That was a disaster. Should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that -- Sue?"
Ms Forsyth asked what Mrs Duffy had said: "Everything. She's just a sort of bigoted woman," Mr Brown grumbled.
That was picked up by broadcasters who have made a habit of listening in at the end of events in the hopes that the prime minister will say something interesting before removing his microphone.
"It's shut me down completely," Mrs Duffy said when she learned of the remarks. "Very upsetting, that. I'm very shocked." Asked whether she hoped Mr Brown would remain in No 10, she said: "I'm not bothered whether he does or not now. I don't think he will."
The prime minister was also visibly upset when his remarks were played to him an hour later. Watched live by hundreds of thousands of voters, he was unable to stop himself burying his head in his hands as the enormity of his gaffe became clear. (© Daily Telegraph, London)