LONDON – Gordon Brown issued a personal apology to a British widow and later said sorry to the entire Labor Party after branding her a bigot on the campaign trail.
The prime minister spent 45 minutes at Gillian Duffy's terraced home to apologize for unguarded comments caught on a radio microphone that he had forgotten to remove.
Brown was accosted by the 66-year-old after stopping to talk to the voters in the suburbs of Rochdale and was attacked on subjects including welfare payments, student tuition fees and the national debt.
But it was Mrs Duffy's complaint about immigration from Eastern Europe which prompted Mr Brown to criticise her as he got back into his car and blamed a staff member for not preventing the meeting. "She's just a bigoted woman," he told aides in his official car, unaware that his microphone was still live.
During the original encounter, Duffy told the prime minister that she was a lifelong Labor supporter. "My family have voted Labor all their lives -- my father even sung Red Flag, but now I am ashamed of saying I'm Labor," she said.
But she had still intended to back Labor on May 6, until she was told what Brown had said and declared that she would now not bother using her postal vote.
“He’s an educated person, why has he come out with words like that?" she said.
“He’s supposed to lead this country and he’s calling an ordinary woman who’s just come up and asked questions what most people would ask him -- he's not doing anything about the national debt and it’s going to be tax, tax, tax for another 20 years to get out of this mess -- and he’s calling me a bigot?"
Brown's discomfort was evident when he was played a tape of his remarks during an interview on BBC Radio 2. He claimed that he had spoken in frustration, upset by the fact that he had not been able to give her a clear answer on her question about immigration.
The Radio 2 interview was also broadcast live on television, and a haggard and humiliated-looking prime minister can be seen holding his head in his hands as he listens to the extracts.
"Of course I apologize if I've said anything offensive, and I would never want to put myself in a position where I would say anything like that," he said.
In a bid to make amends, Brown first called Duffy to apologize, but then made an unscheduled return trip to Rochdale to say he was sorry in person. A large group of eavesdroppers and journalists waited outside as the prime minister remained inside for some 45 minutes, the curtains closed.
When he eventually came back out, Brown explained that he had been able to talk to Duffy. "I'm mortified by what happened. I've given her my sincere apologies," he said. "I misunderstood what she said and she's accepted my apologies.
"If you like, I am a penitent sinner."