LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised in person for describing a voter as “a bigoted woman” on Wednesday, seeking to limit the damage from the gaffe before next week’s parliamentary election.
Brown’s Labour party, in power for 13 years but trailing in opinion polls, had already been on the defensive after opposition parties said the Greek financial crisis was an example of what could happen if Britain’s record budget deficit was not tackled.
Campaigning for the May 6 general election, Brown made the unguarded comment about 66-year-old Labour supporter Gillian Duffy after getting back into his car during a campaign stop in northern England. The remark was picked up by a lapel microphone he was wearing.
Brown later visited Duffy in her own home to apologise.
“Sometimes you do make mistakes and you use wrong words, and once you’ve used that word and you’ve made a mistake, you should withdraw it and say profound apologies, and that’s what I’ve done,” he said, after spending more than 30 minutes in the grandmother’s modest home in the town of Rochdale.
Brown was shown on television with his head in his hands as the comments were replayed to him during an interview with the BBC.
The furore — a rare unscripted moment in a highly choreographed campaign — may undermine his attempts to reclaim lost ground on Thursday in the last of three televised leaders’ debates which will focus on the economy, seen as Brown’s strongest card.
Labour, which has closed the Conservatives’ lead in the opinion polls in recent months, had high hopes for this week’s campaigning, and so far Brown’s performances in the TV debates — which have dominated campaigns — have not drawn plaudits.
“A politician in a stronger position could recover from this. What we know is that Gordon Brown is not in that position ... I don’t think it’s a good idea to call voters bigots,” said Andrew Russell, a politics lecturer at Manchester University.
The pensioner had asked Brown how he would tackle the country’s record deficit as well as other issues ranging from east European immigration to pensions, university tuition fees and anti-social behaviour.
Bookmakers widened their odds against Labour winning a majority to 46-1 after Brown’s gaffe, from 30-1 before.
“There’s no doubt in what the punters are saying: Brown has royally messed up this time,” said Mike Robb, a spokesman for online betting company Betfair.
Opinion polls on Wednesday continued to point to a hung parliament, in which no one party wins an overall majority. But they showed the Conservatives and Labour had regained some ground from the Liberal Democrats, who have enjoyed a strong ratings boost since the first TV leaders’ debate and turned the contest into a three-horse race.
Much of Wednesday’s campaigning had been focused on the economy and Britain’s record budget deficit.
Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, told Reuters all the big parties were agreed on the need to cut government borrowing, warning that failing to do so risked Greek-style financial chaos.
Greece, which saw its debt downgraded to junk status by rating agency Standard & Poor’s on Tuesday, is currently in talks with the IMF and the European Union on getting a 45 billion euro bail-out package to prevent a sovereign default.
Greece’s budget deficit last year stood at 13.6 percent of GDP, compared to a British deficit running at over 11 percent.
Labour Business Minister Peter Mandelson said that likening Britain to Greece was “frankly ridiculous”.
Conservative leader David Cameron said that while there were many differences between the two countries, Britain should take note of Greece’s troubles.
Britain has not had an inconclusive election since 1974 and both large parties have warned that a “hung parliament” would be bad for the country and its economy.
Repairing the public finances will be the biggest domestic policy challenge for whatever government emerges after the election, but the parties have been reluctant to risk voters’ wrath by clearly identifying the extent of cuts.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies said on Tuesday the impending spending squeeze would be the sharpest in at least 30 years and warned the parties would probably have to raise taxes more than they are prepared to admit.
“The public sector is going to face a leaner, meaner time in the coming decades. It doesn’t mean the public sector should give up and do nothing,” Mandelson said, adding that frontline public services must be protected.