On one level I feel sorry for Gordon Brown. As Nick Clegg said, "If we all had recordings of what we mutter under our breath we'd all be crimson with embarrassment." I have come away from meetings or social occasions and said things to my companion in private that were highly uncomplimentary in all sorts of ways. If I had to answer for some of the things I have said in those circumstances, I doubt if I would be invited anywhere much these days. But we keep our innermost thoughts to ourselves and those we trust, and our social and professional lives can carry on under the convenient pretence that we all like each other, hold much the same views, and admire each others' taste in curtains.
So when poor old GB was heard saying what he did in the car following the encounter with Mrs Duffy, it was a 'there but for the grace of God' moment.
But of course all that sympathy is totally outweighed by the sheer awfulness of what the comments revealed. And let's put to bed the idea that (as claimed by a lot of Labour-supporting commenters on CiF, and even John Prescott) this was somehow an underhand sting by the evil Murdoch-owned Sky to trap an innocent man. The microphone was, as I understand it, supplied by Channel 4, and was a 'pool' mike, with the output available to all news organisations. Brown knew it was there, and it was only carelessness that let him forget it was still live. I don't see much of a right-wing plot there.
Should anyone have reported what they heard, when Brown clearly thought he was in private? If the remark had been a personal one ("Can we find a bog sometime soon? I am desperate," or "I must get to the doctor to ask about this discharge"), then of course it should have been kept private. But the remarks he made were directly relevant to the issues he had just been discussing with a voter, and revealed a disrepancy in attitude that is surely of great interest to the nation who are shortly to be asked to vote in a general election. So, in my view, publishing his remarks was completely justified.
A couple of observations about the actual incident:
- It wasn't a difficult encounter, as some have claimed. Mrs Duffy put some questions to him, and he gave the standard answers. He was friendly to her, and she seemed happy with the meeting afterwards. If it had ended there, Brown would have emerged with some credit for meeting a 'real' voter for once and coming across as more-or-less human. There was no reason that I could see for his weary frustration at how it turned out, still less the blaming of an aide for the 'ridiculous' choice of interlocutor.
- The fact that he could characterise someone who raised the immigration issue (politely and without any derogatory language) as a 'bigot' tells us volumes about the way that the left regard the way 'ordinary people' think. If Mrs Duffy had gone on about "all these 'ere Pakis coming over and taking our jobs", I would have called her a bigot myself - but her question was anything but bigoted.
- The killer aspect for me was the way that Brown sought immediately to blame someone else - anyone - for the encounter. "You should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?" Of course, this now looks all of a piece with other things Brown has said - the economic crisis that 'started in America', the shortage of equipment in Iraq that was the fault of the generals, and so on. There's definitely a psychological flaw here: an inability to take repsonsibility for things, a desire to blame others for anything that goes wrong.
- The grovelling apologies (six at the last count, according to commentators) only added to the negativity. He claims he 'misunderstood' what she had said, and wanted to correct it. Or, from another angle (choose from the pick'n'mix excuses), that he hadn't had time to explain himself to her because of all the press, and wanted to tell her personally. I would have had more respect for him if he had said that he regretted the use of the word 'bigot', but that her attitude seemed to him to be prejudiced, and he was merely letting off steam in private. Not ideal, but no real harm done, and no attention from the world's press for the best part of 24 hours.
- The incident serves to confirm those reports of Brown's bad temper and willingness to lash out when things get difficult, so roundly denied by his cheerleaders.
- It shows Brown as utterly two-faced. His cheerful bonhomie to Mrs Duffy at the end of the meeting ("Good to meet you! Good family!") changes to sotto voce cursing the minute the car door shuts. We are entitled to ask ourselves if much of what we see of Brown in public is similarly artificed.
Is this a game-changer for the last week of the election campaign? Too early to say, but Brown's performance tonight in the last of the debates is now more crucial than ever.