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Brown switches focus to economy

Gordon Brown insisted today he did understand public fears about immigration as he tried to move on from his "bigot" slur.

Senior ministers openly acknowledged the fall-out from his encounter yesterday with 66-year-old Gillian Duffy - who he branded a "bigoted woman" - had been damaging for Labour as they entered the final days of the campaign.

As he prepared for tonight's third and final leaders' debate - hosted by the BBC at Birmingham University - the Prime Minister said he wanted to concentrate on the economy.

"Yesterday is yesterday. Today I want to talk about the future of the economy," he declared as he addressed workers at a factory in Halesowen in the West Midlands.

But even on the issue he regards as his strong suit there was trouble, with claims that Bank of England Governor Mervyn King had warned privately about the massive scale of the cuts that would be needed after the election.

US economist David Hale told Australian TV that Mr King had confided that "whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be".

There was no comment from the Bank on his reported remarks, although it is understood that the two men met in London in early March rather than last week, as Mr Hale suggested in his interview.

But during his visit Mr Brown could not escape the issue of immigration, with one worker at the Thompson Friction Welding plant demanding to know what he was going to do about it during a question-and-answer session with staff.

Mr Brown insisted he understood the sense of public concern, pointing to the Government's introduction of an Australian-style points system for workers coming from outside the EU.

"I understand the worries people have about immigration. I understand the concerns about what is happening to people's neighbourhoods and I understand the fears that people have," he said.

Afterwards he acknowledged he should not have described Mrs Duffy as "bigoted" after she raised the issue of immigrants coming to Britain from Eastern Europe.

"I think that I have apologised and I have said that it was the wrong word to use. I am concerned about immigration and I am concerned about controlling immigration," he said.

However, he did not believe the issue would affect the outcome of the General Election, now just a week away.

"Really when it comes down to it, this election will be about the economy and about public services and how people see the future of the economy and the future of public services," he said.

Earlier, Home Secretary Alan Johnson admitted: "No one can suggest this wasn't damaging."

He said that Mr Brown was mortified for having made such a "dreadful mistake", and that Labour fully accepted that immigration was a legitimate election issue.

"The term 'bigoted' - unreasonably prejudiced and intolerant - certainly doesn't apply to Mrs Duffy," he said. "Mrs Duffy isn't bigoted, Gordon isn't a monster and the issue of immigration isn't off limits."

Neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg wanted to be drawn on Mr Brown's comments ahead of the debate, but shadow chief treasury secretary Philip Hammond said voters would draw their own conclusions from what he said.

"What I was most struck by was the difference between what he said to Mrs Duffy when he was chatting to her and what he said about Mrs Duffy when he was in what he thought was the privacy of his own car," he told Sky News.

"People will draw their own conclusions about that."

Labour strategists had been hoping that tonight's debate focusing on the economy would be an opportunity to regain ground in a campaign which has seen them trailing in third place in the polls for much of the time.

But they found themselves trying to pick up the pieces from the fall-out of his chance encounter with Mrs Duffy, who had just popped out to buy a loaf of bread.

Sarah Brown joined a slew of Cabinet ministers rallying round in an attempt to limit the damage, insisting her "caring" husband "hated the fact he had hurt someone".

The Prime Minister had been canvassing in Rochdale when he met retired council worker Mrs Duffy, who asked him a series of questions, including about benefits and the Eastern Europeans who had been "flooding" into Britain.

As Mr Brown was swept away in his car, he told an aide the encounter had been "a disaster" describing her as "just a sort of bigoted woman", unaware that his words were being picked up by a television microphone he had forgotten to remove.

He later returned to her house to apologise in person for what he had said, after it became clear that she was deeply upset by his remarks.

Party strategists will now be scrutinising the polls for signs of how the gaffe has affected the election contest.