Prime Minister Gordon Brown called himself a “penitent sinner” after being caught on a microphone calling a voter he’d just met “a bigoted woman,” a potential setback as his Labour Party struggles to win support for the May 6 election.
Brown was discussing the concerns the voter, Gillian Duffy, had about immigration in Rochdale, near Manchester in northwest England, today as he campaigned to win back the district from the opposition Liberal Democrats. Brown made the comments, played on Sky News television, while still wearing his microphone after he got back into his car. He later spent a half hour visiting Duffy at her home to apologize.
“It’s an embarrassment and it doesn’t do much for his honesty and reputation,” said John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Scotland. “This is obviously going to make it harder for Labour to catch up.”
Brown has been running third behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in most recent polls. Labour is also forecast to have the most seats in Parliament, though short of a majority. Gains by the Liberal Democrats have increased the chance of a so-called hung Parliament.
“She is just the sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour,” Brown said in the car. “That was a disaster. Who put me with that woman?”
Duffy had confronted Brown in the street. “You can’t say anything about immigrants,” she told him. “All these eastern Europeans -- where are they coming from?”
“I am a penitent sinner, sometimes you say things that you don’t mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes when you say things you want to correct it very quickly,” Brown told reporters as he left Duffy’s house. “I have come here to say to Gillian that I am sorry that I made a mistake but also to say that I understood the concerns she was bringing.”
Pollster Andrew Hawkins of ComRes Ltd. said the episode will benefit Liberal Democrats the most because “reluctant Labour voters are more likely to lend their votes” to the party’s leader, Nick Clegg, next week.
“Now Gordon Brown is going to come across as a leader who cannot be trusted,” Hawkins said in an interview.
A ComRes poll last night showed the Conservatives at 32 percent support, compared with 29 percent for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. That would give Labour 277 seats, with Conservatives taking 248, and the Liberal Democrats 93 in the 650-seat House of Commons.
The uneven distribution of votes in the U.K. means Labour may still be the biggest bloc in Parliament, though without a majority, even if it only comes in third in the popular vote. The threat of a hung Parliament may roil markets on concern that power sharing between parties would create a government too weak to fix Britain’s finances.
The pound has dropped 2.1 percent against the dollar since the first TV debate as polls have pointed increasingly to a hung Parliament. Sterling fell to $1.5166 at 4:32 p.m. in London from $1.5265 in New York late yesterday.
Investors are concerned about possible lack of action to narrow the U.K.’s budget deficit, the biggest of any Group of Seven country. The deficit widened 76 percent in the year through March to 152.8 billion pounds ($233 billion), the largest since World War II.
The encounter with the voter was the last such public appearance before Brown was due to gather with officials to prepare for a debate with Clegg and Conservative leader David Cameron tomorrow.
Labour Party officials had been counting on the final televised debate, on the economy, to give Brown a chance to overshadow his opponents because of his decade of experience as finance minister before becoming premier in 2007. Clegg was judged by polls to have won the first encounter. The second, last week, was judged to have had no clear winner.
“I am very upset,” Duffy told reporters in Rochdale after hearing Brown’s comments. “He’s an educated person. Why has he come up with comments like that?”
“I don’t want to speak to him again,” she said. “I want to know why I was called a bigot, that’s all.” Duffy said she would not be voting in the election now after supporting Labour all her life.
‘Lot of Explaining’
“We have found out the prime minister’s internal thoughts,” the Conservative Party’s Treasury spokesman, George Osborne, told Sky News television. “He has got a lot of explaining to do.”
Clegg told Sky that Brown was right to apologize. “Saying something that’s clearly fairly insulting is not right, not right at all,” he said.
Labour’s most senior politicians rallied around Brown to say that the comments were a mistake and that Brown had no intention of hurting Duffy. Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the comments were made in the “heat of the moment” and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said Brown had made a “profuse” apology.
Immigration is the second most important issue facing Britain after the economy, according an Ipsos Mori poll carried out this month. Fourteen percent of those questioned said it was the most important issue, the poll of 977 voters showed.
Brown’s behavior has attracted scrutiny in the past and this latest episode may undermine his ability to leapfrog the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls.
Last year, Cameron taunted him in Parliament about reports of mobile phones being hurled at aides.
The prime minister has thrown pens and even a stapler at officials, according to one former adviser; he says Brown once shoved a laser printer off a desk in a rage. Another aide was warned to watch out for “flying Nokias” when he joined Brown’s team.