Fri, Apr 30, 2010 - Page 6 News List

British PM red-faced after comments

GAFFEUnaware his microphone was still on, Gordon Brown called a voter ‘a sort of bigoted woman,’ leaving Labour in damage-control mode ahead of a crucial debate

AFP AND AP , LONDON

Britain’s ruling Labour Party saw their election campaign thrown into disarray yesterday as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s criticism of an elderly widow as “bigoted” threatened to overshadow a crucial TV debate.

Opponents and the press poured scorn on the prime minister for the embarrassing gaffe, which came on Wednesday when he was questioned by 66-year-old Gillian Duffy just days ahead of the May 6 polls.

Brown — caught out insulting the woman by a television microphone which he had left clipped to his jacket — apologized in person to lifelong Labour supporter Duffy and described himself as a “penitent sinner.”

But his contrition did little to calm the storm.

“This was the authentic Gordon Brown — thin-skinned, paranoid and perpetually on the hunt for someone else to blame,” blasted the right-wing Sun newspaper yesterday.

Even the Labour-supporting Guardian conceded it was “the political catastrophe of the 2010 campaign.”

“What people will see is the contrast between what he was saying publicly and what he was saying privately,” said George Osborne, finance spokesman for the opposition Conservatives.

Labour scrambled to win back lost ground, with Brown’s allies rallying round and the prime minister’s wife speaking out in support.

“His apology was from the heart,” Sarah Brown told the Daily Mirror newspaper.

Brown’s Labour is currently third in most opinion polls, behind the opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. 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.

The Labour leader made the gaffe as he was meeting voters in Rochdale, northwest England. He encountered Duffy, who peppered him with questions about immigration, the national debt and tax in front of television cameras.

Immediately afterward, 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 said Brown’s comments were “very upsetting.”

Brown later went to Duffy’s modest terraced house to apologize personally, after first saying sorry on the radio and by telephone.

“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.”

Despite the fierce Labour fightback following Brown’s gaffe, the media storm seemed certain to overshadow the third and final leaders TV debate later yesterday, when Brown was to clash with Conservative leader David Cameron and head of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, in a debate focused on the economy.

The debates have been a focal point of the British election battle and Clegg’s strong performances have been credited with giving his party a poll boost.

Commentators thought the final debate could favor Brown, however, meaning the timing of his gaffe could not have been worse.

Brown has been keen to play up his record as Britain’s finance minister — a job he did for a decade before becoming prime minister — and in steering the country through the global financial crisis.

Whoever governs Britain, their first priority must be action to quickly tame a mammoth £152.84 billion (US$235.9 billion) deficit racked up during the global financial crisis. Britain will likely suffer the largest cuts to public services since World War II, taxes are sure to rise and efforts to cut unemployment will take time.

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