British PM faces crunch TV test after 'bigot' gaffe

29th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown battled to keep his fading hopes of re-election alive Thursday in a crunch TV debate, amid a storm of criticism for slamming a widowed voter as "bigoted".

The last of three televised contests with Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg focused on the economy, an issue on which former finance minister Brown could be expected to do well.

But the widespread condemnation of his remarks Wednesday about 66-year-old Gillian Duffy has piled the pressure on the prime minister and his Labour Party, already trailing in second and even third place in the polls.

Brown apologised in person after being overheard dismissing the grandmother as a "bigoted woman" following an apparently routine campaign encounter in which she quizzed him, notably about the sensitive issue of immigration.

He made another apology on the Labour website Thursday, saying he was "truly sorry and mortified that I have hurt somebody", and told reporters that "bigoted" was "the wrong word to use".

But while Brown's rivals have been restrained in attacking him over the incident, the row showed no sign of abating, in what the left-wing Guardian paper said was "the political catastrophe of the 2010 campaign".

Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne said the comments "spoke for themselves", adding: "What people will see is the contrast between what he was saying publicly and what he was saying privately."

As the hours ticked down to Thursday evening's crunch debate, Labour allies sought to contain the damage.

Brown's wife Sarah issued a statement of support and finance minister Alistair Darling insisted the row would not harm their chances on polling day.

"I do think though that when people go to the polls, when they start to cast their vote, they will think also about the bigger picture, where is it we as a country are going," Darling told BBC radio.

But with just one week to go, the election remains wide open and Labour -- in power for 13 years -- has everything to lose.

Lib Dem leader Clegg's strong performance in the TV debates has boosted his party's support, squeezing out Labour and raising the chances that no one party has an overall parliamentary majority, known as a hung parliament.

A daily YouGov tracker poll for The Sun on Thursday showed the Conservatives were up one point on 34 percent, the Lib Dems were up three on 31 percent and Labour had dropped two points to 27 percent.

A second poll, by ComRes for ITV and The Independent, put the Tories on 36 percent, compared to 29 percent for Labour and 26 percent for the Lib Dems.

The Duffy incident began innocuously, with the long-time Labour voter popping out for a loaf of bread from her home in Rochdale, northwest England and, spotting the prime minister out canvassing, heading over to talk to him.

She peppered Brown with questions in front of TV cameras, and they parted on seemingly good terms.

But Brown got into his car and declared the encounter a "disaster" -- remarks picked up on a broadcaster's microphone clipped to his jacket that he had forgotten about.

"Should never have put me with that woman -- whose idea was that?" he told an aide, adding: "She was just a sort of bigoted woman."

Brown later went to Duffy's modest terraced house to apologise -- and on Thursday he said in his blog that he had no illusions "as to how much scorn some in the media will want to heap upon me in the days ahead."

In a further but not unexpected blow, The Economist magazine switched its support to the Conservatives to win next week's election, saying Labour "has run out of steam".

© 2010 AFP

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