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British PM's 'Bigot' Remark Overshadows TV Debate

  • RFE/RL

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown heads into his last television debate today before next week's general election -- a debate now overshadowed by Brown's unguarded description of an elderly voter as "bigoted" after she challenged him on immigration from Eastern Europe.

The TV debates between the three main party leaders are first of their kind in Britain and have changed the campaign ahead of the May 6 elections.

In particular, the two debates held so far have raised the profile -- and, it seems, the electoral chances -- of Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, which many polls now put ahead of Brown's ruling Labour Party and second to the Conservatives.

The election is now one of the most unpredictable in decades -- and appears headed to produce a rare "hung" parliament with no one party in a clear majority.

So tonight's third and final debate, on the economy, has been eagerly anticipated -- what prescription will the leaders have for tackling Britain's ballooning budget deficit. Will they be frank about the scale of spending cuts needed?

That was the case, at least, until April 28, and some unguarded remarks by Prime Minister Gordon Brown that are now threatening to overshadow his campaign and the final debate.

'All These Eastern Europeans'

It had started innocuously enough, with Brown meeting an elderly voter on a walkabout in a northern English town. The pensioner, Gillian Duffy, challenged Brown on various issues -- tax, education, welfare. And then one that is particularly sensitive: immigration.

"All these Eastern Europeans [who] are coming in," Duffy said. "Where are they flocking from?"

More than 1 million people are estimated to have arrived in Britain from new EU members such as Poland since the bloc enlarged in 2004. But many have since left.

Brown responded by saying that at least as many Britons had gone to live in continental Europe.

The exchange ended cordially. But then Brown left in his car, a radio microphone still clipped to his jacket -- allowing listeners and viewers to overhear his now unguarded comments:

"That was a disaster. They should never have put me with that woman," Brown can be heard saying. "Whose idea was that? ... Sue's I think."

An aide asks what Duffy had said.

"Everything," Brown replies. "She's just sort of a bigoted woman."

Media Storm

What ensued was a media storm -- and a frantic attempt by Brown and his party to limit the damage.

Commentators said the incident raised questions about Brown's character and his reputation as having a foul temper.

It was also unfortunate as Duffy is a wavering Labour voter, the sort Brown's party needs to hold on to if it has any chance of remaining in power.

Worse, some commentators said the outburst showed Brown's disdain for voters, many of whom share Duffy's concerns about immigration.

Brown made a flurry of apologies. First, on a radio talk show. Then again on the phone to Duffy. Once more, in an e-mail to Labour supporters. And yet again in person when he visited Duffy at her home, spending half an hour there before telling journalists he was 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 said. "So I wanted to come here and to say to Gillian I was sorry, that I'd made a mistake, but to also say that I understood the concerns that she was bringing to me, and I had simply misunderstood some of the words that she used."

Today's British press, at least, did not seem convinced by Brown's apology.

"Day of Disaster," said "The Daily Telegraph."

"So does he think we're all bigots?" asked the "Daily Mail," which favors the Conservatives. "Disaster for Brown as he demonizes the granny who dared ask him about mass immigration" the paper continued.

While plenty of outrage has been directed at Brown, Duffy's comment about Eastern European immigrants has prompted very little criticism.

A scan of today's press found only a few comments in support of Brown, with one on "The Guardian" website saying his "biggest mistake of the day was to creep back to her and apologize."

So now the pressure is on Brown to try to head off the damage and repair his reputation. Otherwise the incident may be remembered not just as a gaffe but as a truly campaign-changing moment.

written by Kathleen Moore, with agency reports