British PM calls pensioner 'bigoted' in campaign gaffe
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown scrambled Wednesday to contain the political fallout after calling an elderly voter "bigoted", in an embarrassing gaffe a week before an election.
Brown apologised to 66-year-old widow Gillian Duffy in person after the incident, which happened after they met on the campaign trail, but his comments risk damaging his already slender hopes of re-election on May 6.
The Labour leader was meeting voters in Rochdale, northwest England, when he encountered Duffy and, in front of television cameras, talked to her about the size of the national debt, tax and immigration.
Immediately after the conversation, Brown got into his car and was driven away but was still wearing a microphone, allowing broadcasters to pick up a discussion he had with an aide about it.
"That was a disaster," Brown said. "Should never have put me with that woman -- whose idea was that?" He added: "She was just a sort of bigoted woman."
Duffy, a lifelong Labour supporter, said the comments were "very upsetting."
"I'm very disappointed," said Duffy. "He's an educated person, why is he coming out with words like that?"
Asked whether she wanted to see Brown get back in Downing Street after what he said to her, she added: "I'm not bothered whether he does or not now."
Brown later went to Duffy's terraced house to apologise personally to her.
Earlier he told BBC radio: "I apologise profusely to the lady concerned. I don't think she is that," adding that he had been worried about not being able to answer Duffy's questions on immigration.
Brown's spokesman said the prime minister had called her. He was also set to say sorry in person.
"He was letting off steam in the car after a difficult conversation. But this is exactly the sort of conversation that is important in an election campaign and which he will continue to have with voters," the spokesman said.
Brown's ruling Labour party is currently third in most opinion polls, behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
A Times/Populus poll published Thursday put the Conservatives on 36 percent, the Liberal Democrats on 28 percent and Labour on 27 percent.
The two other parties seized on the comments, with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg saying it was "quite right" for Brown to have apologised.
"If you're answering peoples' questions, you have got to do so with a sense of respect and whatever you think of them, not insult them," he told Sky News television.
Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne added: "We have found out the prime minister's internal thoughts... and I think they speak for themselves and the prime minister has got a lot of explaining to do."
But Peter Mandelson, Brown's de facto deputy, said the premier was "deeply upset" over the incident.
"There's no justification but, you know, politicians are human... they say things in the heat of the moment and like all of us, sometimes you say things you simply don't mean," he told Sky.
"What will upset Gordon is the hurt caused to her. It's not in his nature to want to hurt people like that".
The incident looks set to overshadow preparations for the last of three televised leaders debates Thursday between Brown, Clegg and David Cameron of the Conservatives.
The first debate two weeks ago triggered a surge in support for Clegg, leading most pollsters to predict Britain is now heading for a hung parliament, in which no one party has an overall majority.
Brown said Saturday that he was "upping the tempo" in his campaign, meaning that he would meet more ordinary members of the public in its closing days.
Lance Price, a spin doctor at Downing Street when Brown's predecessor Tony Blair was prime minister, predicted the comments could cause the premier problems before polling day.
"It will be endlessly talked about," Price told Sky. "It will be described as a gaffe and it was a gaffe."
© 2010 AFP