I was surprised to learn today that all the American nightly news broadcasts covered the british “bigotgate” scandal last night. I guess I shouldn’t be so shocked, it is a pretty crazy story and doesn’t require much background info to understand. A politician makes nice with a supporter, all smiles, then gets into his Lexus but forgets to turn his radio mic off. He launches into a rant about how horrible it is that he was made to talk to that awful “bigoted woman”. It’s fairly comical really, at least for those looking in. But for Labour supporters, yesterday afternoon was devastating. Coming just a week before the election, it has dashed any Labour hope of squeeking through and remaining in power.
It was almost the perfect storm to sink Prime Minister Gordon Brown – an aloof, awkward politician with a reputation for behind-the-scenes temper tantrums disrespects a middle England voter by deriding her as “bigoted” because she brought up a question about immigration, the most sensitive political issue in Britain. Add to that the fact that this was an elderly woman who had actually stated her concerns to Brown in a fairly reasonable manner and you’ve got a concoction that is virtually guaranteed to spell the end of Gordon Brown’s political career.
Brown has never liked the schmoozing, glad-handing aspect of politics. He has long been known to get frustrated with the American-style 'popularity contest'that Tony Blair brought to British politics. It is likely that on this occasion, his frustration boiled over. Unfortunately for him, it happened while he was still on mic.
At this point it’s hard to say with any certainty what effect this will have on the campaign. Though it has changed since Blair, politics in the UK is still less personality-based than in the US, and it’s generally acknowledged that even Brown’s supporters don’t much like his personality. For people who already don’t like Brown this will confirm what they don’t like about him. For his supporters, this kind of thing is likely what they already suspected the PM says behind closed doors anyway. There is a chance the public may just look the other way about this. After all, this is the country where the deputy prime minister actually punched a voter in the face and went on to win the election.
But this situation is much much worse than the "Prescott punch". Ever since the meteoric rise of the Liberal Democrat candidate Nick Clegg following the first-ever televised UK election debate, Brown has been sinking rapidly in the polls. He is now in third place. The Labour Party was hoping that tonight’s BBC debate focusing on the economy, the third and final one, would revitalize his campaign since this is his strong suit. Since this was anticipated to be the most policy-focused debate, Brown felt he had a realistic chance against his younger, more charismatic opponents.
As part of this comeback push, Brown’s handlers put him on a PR blitz this week, trotting him out to various areas of the country to get out and meet the “ordinary voter” in non stage-managed interactions. His jaunt yesterday was part of that. And it is the reason why, when Brown’s gatekeeper Sue Nye noticed an elderly woman heckling the prime minister as he talked to people on a prisoner rehabilitation program, she decided to bring her over to air her grievances to Brown. The old woman, Gillian Duffy (her name became one of the hottest trending topics on Twitter yesterday afternoon), told Brown she was a Labour supporter but she was concerned about the national debt and immigrants at one point uttering the rather amusing line “All these Eastern Europeans, where are they coming from anyway?”. Brown smiled and exchanged some pleasantries with her, then got into his car. The assembled reporters could then hear him snap furiously at an aid inside the vehicle. Whose idea was it to make him talk to that horrible woman? Was it Sue? It was a “disaster” he moaned, before calling Mrs. Duffy a “bigoted woman”. The feed then cut off as the car went out of range of the mic receptor.
Mrs. Duffy was busy telling reporters that she enjoyed her conversation with Brown and she planned to vote for him when a group of breathless TV producers ran over to tell her what Brown had just said about her. The expression of shock that crossed her face quickly turned into real and profound hurt. She quickly changed her mind about how she would cast her vote.
Brown was informed that his comment had been overheard just minutes later during a live TV/radio interview (his tight schedule reflects the intensity of this day which must have contributed to his irritability). As he was played the audio, he hung his head in his hands. He looked so overwhelmed, so paniced. It was a sight that will likely become the defining image of this campaign. Immediately after the interview he frantically called Mrs. Duffy to apologize, but apparently this didn’t go very well because just minutes later his convoy was speeding to her house, and he rushed out and started knocking on her door, as reporters waited breathlessly to see if she would refuse to let him in. It was a humiliating act of desperation. Brown spent 45 minutes inside Mrs. Duffy’s home before emerging to talk to the crowd of reporters camped out outside her house, which had now grown to a small tent city. Who knows what he was doing in there for so long, perhaps hiding?
The immigration issue is sure to come up in tonight’s debate, and it will be interesting to see how Brown handles it. Will be bring up what happened yesterday? Will his opponents bring it up?
On last night’s news shows many Labour party officials were pointing out that this could really happen to anybody, and they’re right. It could have easily been David Cameron or Nick Clegg making an off-colour comment about someone they had just met (though you’d think they’d have the good sense to wait until they had driven off a bit before saying it). But it is the content of what Brown was so upset about that is so damaging. Why would he get so worked up just because he was forced to talk to a voter in a non-scripted way? It reflects a personality obsessed with control, and this is a reputation that he already has in Westminster.
One thing is for sure, this is one exciting election season. I’m on the train to London at the moment actually, I’ll be there until Wednesday. Sadly I’ll be in Brussels for election day itself, but it will be interesting to talk to people about the election this weekend. Given its unpredictability so far, who knows what might happen over the next few days!