Gordon Brown has said yesterday that he was “mortified” after being caught on microphone describing a pensioner he had just spoken to as a “bigoted woman”, the BBC reports.
Gillian Duffy, 65, had challenged him on issues including how jobs were being affected by immigration from Eastern Europe.
As he got into his car, he was still wearing a broadcast microphone and was heard to say “that was a disaster”.
Mr Brown later went to Mrs Duffy’s house in Rochdale to apologise and sent an e-mail to Labour activists to say he “profoundly” regretted his comments.
After spending more than 40 minutes talking to Mrs Duffy, the prime minister said: “If you like, I’m a penitent sinner. Sometimes you say things you don’t mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes when you say things you’ll want to correct them very quickly.
“I wanted to come here and say to Gillian that I was sorry, I had made a mistake, but also to say I understood the concerns she was bringing to me and I had simply misunderstood some of the words she had used.”
He had already phoned Mrs Duffy to apologise after the tape was played to him during a BBC Radio 2 interview.
After listening to the recording, with his forehead resting on his hand, he said: “I do apologise if I’ve said anything that has been hurtful.”
The comments were made after the conversation with Mrs Duffy which ended with him complimenting her and her family.
As he went to get into his car, Mr Brown told her: “Very nice to meet you, very nice to meet you.”
But off camera, and not realising he still had a Sky News microphone pinned to his shirt, he was heard to tell an aide: “That was a disaster – they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous…”
Asked what she had said, he is heard to reply: “Ugh everything! She’s just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour. I mean it’s just ridiculous. I don’t know why Sue brought her up towards me.”
Mrs Duffy said after hearing of Mr Brown’s comments: “I’m very upset. He’s an educated person. Why has he come out with words like that?
“He’s supposed to be leading the country and he’s calling an ordinary woman who’s come up and asked questions that most people would ask him… It’s going to be tax, tax, tax for another 20 years to get out of this national debt, and he’s calling me a bigot.”
Mrs Duffy, a widow who has a daughter and two grandchildren, said she used to work with disabled children for Rochdale council before she retired and earlier told reporters she was a lifelong Labour voter.
Mrs Duffy has said she will not be making any comment following Mr Brown’s visit and face-to-face apology but it has emerged that she is being represented by the Bell Pottinger public relations firm.
The BBC’s Political Correspondent Iain Watson, in Rochdale, said this raised the possibility of potentially damaging stories appearing in Thursday’s newspapers about the encounter at a time when Labour wanted to shift the focus to the economy ahead of the final prime ministerial debate.
Reacting to the day’s events, Mrs Duffy’s nephew said the prime minister had made a “big mistake”.
“It’s a massive gaffe isn’t it,” Andrew Duffy said. “What can you say? He’s made a fool of himself really.”
But Mr Duffy said Mr Brown had apologised and he did not think the incident was a “big thing really”.
Speaking on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, Mr Brown said he would never put himself “in a position where I would want to say anything like that about a woman I’d met”.
He added: “I blame myself for what is done, but you’ve got to remember that this was me being helpful to the broadcasters, with my microphone on, rushing into the car because I had to get to another appointment and they have chosen to play my private conversation.”
Later still Mr Brown made a fuller public apology to Labour Party members, acknowledging the incident had “dominated” the news and could impact on their campaigning.
He said: “I am under no illusions as to how much scorn some in the media will want to heap upon me in the days ahead.”
BBC political editor Nick Robinson said it was a disaster for the prime minister because it showed the gap between his public and private face.
“For those of us who have known Gordon Brown for many years, what we have seen is no huge surprise. He has got better and better at handling himself in public, but quite often he flares up in private, expresses frustration,” he said.
He said it was impossible to say what impact the incident would have on voters. But with Labour trailing in the polls, he added, every day left in the campaign needed to be a good day for Mr Brown and this clearly was not.
‘Heat of the moment’
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said Mr Brown was “mortified” over the hurt he had caused Mrs Duffy.
He told the BBC: “I’m afraid that sometimes you get picked up by a microphone in this way, saying something that yes you don’t believe, but you say in the heat of a moment.
“We all do it, we all regret it and, how people I think should judge him is by how he’s responded, by ‘phoning her immediately and giving her an unqualified apology.”
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications director who met Mr Brown after the incident, said his remarks were a “mistake”.
“I don’t think I have ever seen him [Mr Brown] so angry with himself,” he wrote in his blog. “And he was angry less about the obvious media frenzy he had unleashed than the fact that he said what he did. She was clearly not a bigot and he knew that.”
The Conservatives said Mr Brown’s comments spoke for themselves.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne said: “That’s the thing about general elections, they do reveal the truth about people.”
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the incident was “just wrong”, when someone had asked him a “perfectly reasonable question”.
Mr Clegg later said the prime minister had “gone out of his way to apologise and that’s that”.
See video clip on BBC website: