At last! British newsmen who have been so assiduously trolling for gaffes during their country’s election campaign have finally hooked a big one. And not just any gaffe either but, according to Benedict Brogan of The Daily Telegraph, "The gaffe that could kill off Gordon Brown." Mr Brown, the current prime minister, and his Labour party are trailing in the polls behind both the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats, led by "Nick" Clegg. Earlier today, while campaigning in Rochdale, Lancashire, he met a 65-year-old widow named Gillian Duffy who described herself as a Labour supporter but who complained to him about immigration from Eastern Europe, taxes and spongers living on the dole. Mr Brown gave her a cheery greeting but subsequently, not realizing that he still had on a lapel mike following a TV interview, he was heard remarking to an aide that he had been annoyed by someone whom he called "just a bigoted woman."
Well, you’d think he’d locked her in the Tower. The remark, said The Evening Standard "electrified the race" and (the physics of this being a little unclear) "risked the implosion of Labour''s election campaign." Of course, if he had called a political opponent or an anti-immigration journalist "bigoted" for having doubts about Labour’s immigration policies, or the lack of them, or its willingness to support millions who are unwilling to work, no one would have thought much about it. Such language, though strong, is by no means unheard of in British or American political life these days, I’m sorry to say. Nor can it be the slightest surprise that he would think such a thing about an ordinary voter expressing such concerns. Not that it wasn’t terribly rude of him to say it to her face.
Oh, wait. He didn’t say it to her face. He thought he was communicating privately with aides but forgot he had a microphone on. Gotcha! But how strange it is that what he said should be uncontroversial and where he said it unremarkable, yet the accidental and inadvertent breach of his privacy in making the observation should result in a scandal said to be on the point of wrecking his whole election campaign. I suppose you could say that evidence he was talking about someone behind her back suggested a lack of integrity but, if so, it is a lack that few of us can honestly say we don’t share, particularly if we meet a troublesome stranger. More likely, it simply gave the media a chance to cry hypocrisy, to pretend to be more shocked than they are (talk about hypocrisy!) and thus to manufacture a bit of the kind of drama the campaign has lacked since the sudden emergence of Mr Clegg as the new political superstar, now almost a fortnight ago.
Mr Brogan seems to see something of this strangeness himself:
On the pressures of politics: We should acknowledge that we are in uncharted territory. Consider what we are witnessing. Under pressure Mr Brown says the kind of things that politicians say all the time. A microphone picks it up. It is replayed instantly. And now Mr Brown is forced to have the tape replayed to him while he is on the radio with Jeremy Vine but with cameras on him to record his reaction, head in hands. In under an hour, blunder to firestorm. Gladstone never had to put up with this. Blimey.
That’s the photo that’s been all over the news: the one of Mr Brown with his head in his hands and real anguish, no doubt, in his heart on hearing his own words played back to him. I wonder if anyone is asking himself if Gordon Brown’s deliberate humiliation by the media is any better than Mrs Duffy’s accidental humiliation by Gordon Brown?