LONDON – Britain’s bedraggled Prime Minister Gordon Brown waltzed into a political train wreck Wednesday after forgetting to turn off his microphone. He described a loyal Labour voter as a bigot for asking about immigration, blamed advisers for a “disaster” ahead of next week’s election, then rushed back to the voter’s house to beg her forgiveness.
All the country could do was look on — in shock, amazement and sometimes glee — as the painful, riveting drama played out over television and radio for hours.
The debacle created a massive setback for Brown on the eve of the last TV debate ahead of the May 6 vote.
Grandmother Gillian Duffy, 66, met with Brown at a campaign stop in the northern town of Rochdale and questioned him about the influx of eastern European immigrants who have come to Britain.
Many people are angry that immigrants are taking jobs at a time when Britain's unemployment level is soaring. More than 1 million eastern Europeans have moved to Britain since the EU gained new members like Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, but some have also left during the bruising recession.
Brown brushed the question aside and explained that Britons were also working in eastern Europe, leaving in his car in a hurry and forgetting to turn off his microphone.
“That was a disaster, they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous,” Brown is heard saying.
Asked what Duffy had said to upset him, Brown told the aide: “Everything. She’s just a sort of bigoted woman.”
Duffy, a retired widow who had worked with handicapped children and whose family had all voted for Labour, had questioned Brown on taxes, university fees, immigration and Britain’s record deficit of 152.84 billion pounds ($235.9 billion).
Brown’s gaffe was immediately broadcast and he was then grilled about it on a televised radio show. Slumped over with his head in his hand, Brown said he realized he had made a mistake and regretted the remarks.
“He’s an educated person, why has he come out with words like that?” Duffy said. “He’s calling an ordinary woman who’s just come up and asked questions … a bigot.”
Duffy said Brown had initially appeared receptive as they discussed policy. “I thought he was understanding but he wasn’t, was he?” said Duffy, who said the encounter may prompt her to abstain from voting.
Brown then went to Duffy’s house to apologize.
Flashing a wildly odd smile — something he has repeatedly been criticized for because he is known for being gruff and impersonal — Brown emerged from the house and said Duffy accepted his apology. Duffy stayed in her house and away from the cameras.
The political consequences of Brown’s blunder could be severe, with Brown already third in opinion polls for the general election and desperate to show his supposedly statesmanlike credentials to dispatch less experienced rivals, Conservative leader David Cameron and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats.
In an ironic twist, Brown’s campaign team had even overhauled their election strategy this week — betting that more contact between their leader and ordinary people would revive his flagging election hopes.
Wednesday’s incident is the latest in a long line of gaffes where lawmakers whose private remarks have been made accidentally public — from President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 joke declaration of war on Russia to President George W. Bush’s overly familiar “Yo, Blair” greeting in 2006 to Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair.
Most recently in the United States, as President Barack Obama prepared to sign the big U.S. health care overhaul, Vice President Joe Biden said quietly into his ear, “This is a big (expletive) deal,” not realizing the comment was being picked up on an open microphone.
Since then, the Biden episode has been repeatedly viewed on YouTube and even turned into T-shirts — but not seen as a political liability.
Brown had a previous gaffe last year when he sent a handwritten note to a mother whose son was killed in Afghanistan. He had misspelled the soldier’s name and was forced into an embarrassing apology.
George Osborne, a senior Conservative Party lawmaker, summed up the delight Wednesday among Brown’s foes.
“The thing about general elections is that they reveal the truth about people,” he said.
Charlie Whelan, a former aide to Brown, used his Twitter Web site to defend the leader. “Who has not let off steam under stress and strain” of a campaign? he wrote. “He’s apologized, move on.”
Other allies also rushed to Brown’s defense. “This is something that he knows he shouldn’t have said,” said Treasury chief Alistair Darling, a Labour lawmaker.
Ivor Gaber, a political campaign analyst at London’s City University, said the incident would damage Brown but may not prove fatal.
“People know that Brown is no angel, and though this won’t do him any good, it’s not certain how this will play out,” he said.