Gordon Brown was fighting for his political life today after he delivered a potential knockout blow to his own election hopes just hours before the crucial final live television debate.
The Prime Minister will desperately try and draw a line under the ‘bigotgate’ scandal when he is expected to apologise again for insulting grandmother Gillian Duffy in tonight’s debate.
In a tumultuous day for Labour, the Prime Minister tore up his plans and returned to Mrs Duffy’s terrace house to beg for forgiveness after he was caught calling her a bigot because she questioned him about immigration.
He also sent a grovelling email to Labour supporters apologising for hurting the party’s campaign.
‘You know I have strengths as well as weaknesses. We all do. You also know that sometimes we say and do things we regret. I profoundly regret what I said this morning,’ he wrote.
A TV microphone overheard Mr Brown privately attacking Mrs Duffy, 66, as a ‘bigot’ for daring to raise immigration with him–seconds after telling her she was a ‘good woman’.
‘That was a disaster. You should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?
‘It’s Sue [Nye, a Brown election aide] I think. It’s just ridiculous.’
Asked what Mrs Duffy had said, he replies: ‘Oh, 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.’
It came on the day that Labour’s favourite think-tank admitted those concerned about mass immigration had been treated as ‘nasty, stupid and backward.
Polls suggest the issue is second only to the economy among people’s concerns at the election, though none of the three main parties has been keen to discuss it.
Despite the extraordinary 40-minute visit by Mr Brown to Mrs Duffy’s home, her niece, also called Gillian, said: ‘She’s a very strong-willed person and I don’t think she’ll accept the apology.’
But his gaffe prompted anger among colleagues, who feared he had given voters a devastating insight into his own character and undermined the party’s stance on a key issue.
Mr Brown held his head in his hands as a recording of his off-guard remarks, made to an aide in the back of his limousine, was played back to him soon afterwards.
A shocked Mrs Duffy, a widow who spent her career working with handicapped children, said she had been a lifelong Labour supporter but would not now vote for Mr Brown.
Lord Mandelson led a desperate damage limitation exercise, pleading that the Prime Minister was ‘slightly tired’ and ‘letting off steam’ but admitting there could be ‘no justification’ for his remarks.
Spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who was last night helping Mr Brown prepare for tonight’s make-or-break leaders’ TV debate, admitted: ‘I don’t think I have ever seen him so angry with himself.’
The disaster–dubbed ‘Bigotgate’ in Westminster–unfolded as Mr Brown visited a community payback scheme in Rochdale.
Mrs Duffy was introduced to him by an aide and the pair embarked on an apparently good-natured discussion in which she raised the national debt, student loans, tax and benefits.
She briefly mentioned immigration, telling Mr Brown: ‘You can’t say anything about immigrants. All these Eastern Europeans, where are they flocking from?’
The two appeared to part amicably, with Mrs Duffy saying she intended to vote Labour as Mr Brown retreated to his car.
But unaware his microphone was still on, he then angrily turned to aide Justin Forsyth and said: ‘That was a disaster . . . should never have put me with that woman.’
Asked what she had said, he replied: ‘Oh, everything. She was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour. I mean, it’s just ridiculous.’
Mrs Duffy, told soon afterwards about Mr Brown’s remarks, was visibly upset.
‘I’m disgusted,’ she said. ‘He’s an educated person, why has he come out with words like that?’
Forced to listen to his own remarks in a BBC interview, Mr Brown appeared close to breaking point and his voice shook as he apologised.
But that was deemed inadequate by horrified colleagues and he went back to Mrs Duffy’s house to say sorry in person, emerging after 40 minutes to describe himself as a ‘penitent sinner’.
But Sir Andrew Green, head of the MigrationWatch think tank, said: ‘Finally the mask has slipped. As soon as a real voter raises the question of immigration with the Prime Minister, she’s insulted as a bigot.
‘How could a Government under Gordon Brown be trusted to make a serious effort to tackle mass immigration when his true views have now been exposed to the public?’
The Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown, spent much of yesterday campaigning in his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency in Fife.
Mrs Brown first visited Adam Smith College in Glenrothes where she chatted to art and design students and then spent time with elderly visitors to Abbeyview Day Centre in Dunfermline.
And as her campaign efforts continued, she was out and about in Cowdenbeath.
On her Twitter page yesterday, she said she had ‘been campaigning in Edinburgh and Fife last night and today–good to see so many friends.’