British PM calls pensioner ‘bigoted’ in campaign gaffe
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown battled Wednesday to limit the damage to his re-election hopes after calling an elderly widow "bigoted", in an embarrassing gaffe just a week before crucial polls.
Brown apologised in person to 66-year-old Gillian Duffy after the incident, which happened after they met on the campaign trail, but his comments risked destroying his already slender hopes of winning on May 6.
The slip-up also cast a shadow over preparations for the third and final TV election debate Thursday, in which Brown will clash with Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat head Nick Clegg on the economy.
The Labour leader was meeting voters in Rochdale, northwest England, when he encountered Duffy, who peppered him with questions about immigration, the national debt and tax in front of television cameras.
Immediately afterwards, Brown got into his car and was driven away but was still wearing a microphone, allowing broadcasters to pick up his subsequent discussion with an aide.
“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 Brown’s comments were “very upsetting”.
“I’m very disappointed… He’s an educated person, why is he coming out with words like that?” Asked if she wanted to see Brown win the election after what he said to her, she added: “I’m not bothered whether he does or not now.”
Brown later went to Duffy’s modest terraced house to apologise personally, after first saying sorry on the radio and by telephone to Duffy.
“I’ve just been talking to Gillian, I’m mortified by what’s happened,” he said on the doorstep of her house after spending 40 minutes there. “I’m a penitent sinner.”
Surrounded by a scrum of media, police and schoolchildren, he added he had “misunderstood” some of her comments, thought to relate to her fears over the number of eastern European immigrants in Britain.
The prime minister also emailed members of his party apologising for the gaffe.
“I know how hard you all work to fight for me and the Labour Party, and to ensure we get our case over to the public,” he wrote.
Brown’s party is currently third in most opinion polls, behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
But the parties are close and most pollsters predict Britain is heading for a hung parliament, in which no one party has an overall majority.
A Times/Populus poll published Thursday put the Conservatives on 36 percent, the Liberal Democrats on 28 percent and Labour on 27 percent.
Earlier this year, a book by a respected political commentator claimed Brown had scared staff with his outbursts of temper. Its claims were denied by the prime minister’s Downing Street office but Brown admitted earlier this month that he was sometimes “impatient”.
Britain’s other parties seized on the latest comments, with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg saying it was “quite right” for Brown to have apologised.
“If you’re answering people’s 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 Brown “has got a lot of explaining to do”.
But Brown’s allies rallied round him. Peter Mandelson, his 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,” he told Sky.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband added: “No one will be more mortified than the prime minister by this and he has obviously expressed his profound apologies to her.”