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Sunday 2 May 2010

'Bigotgate' only confirmed working-class suspicions

Brown's candour was rare in a campaign where few will tell the truth, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

LAST week it was reported that Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, believes that whoever wins the election would have to introduce such brutal fiscal austerity that they would be put out of power for a generation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies condemned the political parties for failing to say how bad things are. An independent survey found that 75 per cent of the British people think enough money to deal with the enormous deficit can be found from efficiency savings alone.

I heard a NEET (one of the 900,000 young people in the category 'Not in Employment, Education or Training') explain that she had no conscience about taking benefits, since she contributed to the economy through the taxes on her cigarettes. And the prime minister confirmed the suspicions of the white working class that the political elite holds them in contempt and gave the media, who were getting bored with 'Cleggmania', the scandal of 'Bigotgate'.

Neither Mrs Gillian Duffy, 66-year-old grandmother and retired council worker, nor Gordon Brown, 59-year-old British prime minister, will ever forget what happened after she left her modest terraced home last Wednesday morning to buy bread. This was the day when Brown -- who on the campaign trail had hitherto met only carefully selected party supporters in their own homes ('going from safe-house to safe-house' as it was unkindly described) -- was delivered into the depressed town of Rochdale to show the press he could communicate with 'ordinary people' and what's more, do it on his own without his wife Sarah, whom a journalist had described as following him around like a psychiatric nurse.

Standing at the edge of the media scrum, Gillian Duffy -- who looks like the no-nonsense working-class Lancastrian she is -- was spotted by Sue Nye, Brown's most loyal aide, and hauled forward to meet him. Her family was life-long Labour, she told him, but now she was ashamed of admitting it. In a manner as polite as it was forthright, she explained her concerns about tax on pensioners, about the national debt, about vulnerable people losing out and about tuition fees. "You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're . . ." she said, unable even to utter the word 'racist', "but all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?"

In response, Brown gave her several lists of government achievements, asked her about her family, told her it had been 'very nice to see you' and departed for his car.

As she told journalists that "he was a nice man" and she had already voted Labour on her postal ballot, the microphone he had forgotten to remove from his lapel picked up his complaint to an aide about "Sue's" ridiculous decision to put him with "that woman".

"What did she say?" asked the aide. "Everything, she was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour." So in a very few words, he showed himself to be a hypocrite and a bully and the British public, 80 per cent of whom worry about the mass immigration, will have had it confirmed that political parties think they have no right to say so. UKIP and the BNP are hugging themselves.

And so began Brown's Via Dolorosa. On a BBC radio programme he had his remarks played to him, and, since this time he didn't realise there was a camera, viewers saw him put his head in his hands, bluster and charge out angrily. He will have been shown Mrs Duffy's almost tearful distress when told what he had said about her. When an apologetic phonecall didn't bring forgiveness, he visited her, grovelled, failed to persuade her to be photographed with him and emerged to the waiting press wearing what the journalist Simon Hoggart has described as "his Sunday-best smile that frightens the bejaysus out of us".

(A hilarious footnote to the story was that after 48 hours of trying to find an excuse for Brown's gaffe, his camp suggested that he had misheard this blameless matron and thought she'd asked where the eastern Europeans "were f**king [as opposed to flocking] from?".)

On Thursday night, though he looked awful, Brown fought his corner in the third leaders' debate with guts and ruthlessness but came bottom in the polls. All three again failed to tell the public the truth about our finances, David Cameron won and Nick Clegg's novelty value slightly diminished. On the campaign trail, Boris Johnson spoke for many critics of Clegg's party when he declared: "How can you conceivably trust the Lib Dems! Spineless protoplasmic invertebrate amoebic fibbers -- Janus-faced!"

Labour is already tearing itself apart between the Mandelson and trade union factions, Clegg hates Brown and could work with Cameron, but his rank-and-file hate Tories.

It's not just a fabulously exciting election, the aftermath could well be even more electrifying.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards