Gillian Duffy: Rochdale Granny

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Gillian Duffy was upset after Gordon Brown called her a bigot for raising the issue of immigration. She won’t be voting Labour this time – but she is unconvinced by David Cameron. In more ways than one, it is the story of the election so far. Whitehall Editor Brian Brady investigates

He stayed for 39 minutes, he apologised – repeatedly – and he looked at Gillian Duffy's family photographs. But Gordon Brown didn't get anything in return.

Not only was he denied the redemption of a public appearance, even a formal handshake, with a woman he had earlier called a bigot ("I just didn't think it was a good idea," explained her nephew, Peter. "We just thought she'd had enough") but he didn't even get a cup of tea.

As a God-fearing man, the Prime Minister knows the penitent sinner is graciously received by God; but, it now turns out, less lavishly by Mrs Duffy in her Rochdale terrace, despite the plaque relating the Irish proverb "May the roof of your house never fall in and those within never fall out".

"My auntie was actually going to the local shop for some bread and milk when she met Mr Brown," said Mr Duffy, who chaperoned his auntie when the PM interrupted his busy schedule to come calling. "She didn't have anything in the house to offer him. She couldn't offer him a coffee or anything. It was a bit of a dry day for Mr Brown at Gillian's house."

A dry day indeed. What had begun as a personal "disaster" lamented by a Prime Minister holed up in his car following his first encounter with Mrs Duffy had escalated to a full-blown electoral catastrophe. As Mr Brown left through the most famous uPVC front door in Britain, The Sun was already trying to get in the back.

The explosive impact of his difficult first conversation with Mrs Duffy might have been controlled by skilful media handling; the revelation that his complaints about her barrage of questions had been broadcast, by a microphone still clinging to his lapel, and the webcam footage of him cringing while listening to the tape on live radio, propelled the situation far beyond the command of even the most accomplished spinners.

"Lord Mandelson, desperate to apply soothing balm, insists Brown was only 'letting off steam'," said Professor Bill Jones of Liverpool Hope University. "But perceptions, in the super-heated atmosphere one week before polling, will embrace much more than that. Brown's gaffe reinforced Gordon's reputation for boorish grumpiness, for gaucheness in public and as a 'typical politician', saying one thing to voters' faces, yet another totally contradictory thing behind their backs."

The Labour campaign, focused so completely on the Prime Minister, was holed below the waterline the moment its figurehead stumbled into a crisis. "The immediate decision was the predictable 'we fight on'," one minister grimly observed yesterday. "We just moved on to the next challenge, which, unfortunately, was the leaders' debate. We had already changed course to concentrate more on the leader. I think this will mean we give more prominence to other ministers, to take the heat off him and, frankly, give the party a better chance."

A lacklustre performance in the debate has confirmed Mr Brown's image as an also-ran; an object of derision, rather than fear, for the Conservatives and their allies in the right-wing press. In a few moments of heated discussion on some Lancastrian scrubland, followed by several hours of frenzied backtracking by some of the most experienced politicians in the country, Gillian Duffy has reduced Labour's re-election campaign to chaos.

Yet, while the calamity may have undermined backing for Labour, it does not automatically translate into greater support for David Cameron and his team. Mrs Duffy's postal vote might not have been cast for Labour – as originally planned – by the time she left for a holiday in Canada yesterday, but friends insist it is highly unlikely that she transferred it to Mr Cameron. In fact, The Sun's offer to buy her story – for approaching £50,000 – was abandoned when she refused to endorse the Tory leader.

Although Gillian Duffy's encounter with Gordon Brown confirmed all manner of reservations about the Prime Minister and the campaign he is leading, it also exposed Mr Cameron's failure to capitalise on the weakness of his opponent. Forget Worcester woman, Mondeo man, Pebbledash people and all the voter types targeted in elections past, Rochdale Grandmother spoke for millions of voters who have been turned off by Mr Brown but cannot bring themselves to vote for the Tory leader. For many Labour supporters, this is the sole consolation of a luckless campaign.

Peter Hyman, a former strategist for Tony Blair, remained resolutely unimpressed by the Rochdale incident, pointing to "bigger stories" in the rise of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and Mr Cameron's loss of an opinion poll lead that once stood solidly in double figures. He said: "At the moment the Tories are polling the same as [the former leader] Michael Howard. They've had all this modernisation but they are at roughly the same level as they were five years ago – that's the story of this campaign."

It sounds like a desperate attempt to deflect attention from Labour's woes, but it is not without justification. Ipsos Mori polls in 2009 gave the Tories double-digit leads, while the latest puts them at 32 per cent, dead level with the Lib Dems and four ahead of Labour. Under Mr Howard's leadership, the party won 33 per cent of the vote in the 2005 general election.

Tory foot soldiers doggedly maintain that they are still in front but, privately, admit to problems selling the party's vague "Big Society" message on the doorstep. At a time when he could drive home his considerable tactical advantage, Mr Cameron has presided over a "safety-first" campaign that has so far failed to ignite the many with misgivings about his ability to take on the responsibility of government. "He is cornering the attention and that is OK, because he is our greatest asset," one campaigner complained yesterday. "But we need to see more of our proposals and the people he says will deliver. He is keeping his team in the background too much."

Tim Bale, the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, argues that the party has failed to capitalise on its own preparations for the campaign, let alone on the mistakes of its opponents.

He said: "The Tory campaign has achieved neither lift-off nor cut-through. Most of the gains the party will make will come about as the result of the work put in before the election, not just in terms of trying to reassure people on, say, the NHS, and persuade them the party was changing, but also in terms of the nitty-gritty infrastructure work to help to get out the vote on Thursday.

"Any gains made during the course of the campaign will have come about largely by default, in other words by Labour and Brown making a hash of it, and the Lib Dems failing to sustain, at least completely, their surge."

Mr Cameron, like his opponents, has run an energetic campaign, travelling the country and devoting much time to attacking the proposals of other parties. They have performed and competed on the same stage three times in front of millions of viewers.

What has been missing is a willingness to address head-on the issues that matter most to voters. The parties have traded claims and insults about their economic plans, but it did not become a debate until last week, when the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that all three main parties had failed to come clean about the scale of the spending cuts that would be required after the election. And it was not until Mrs Duffy cornered Mr Brown on Wednesday that another key concern, immigration, made it on to the agenda – although she also asked about the deficit, pensions, taxation, benefits and tuition fees during her time with the PM.

To the "forgotten" list can be added the war in Afghanistan, foreign affairs, transport and meaningful discussion of health and education, lost in the furore surrounding the three "beauty contests" of the TV debates. Respondents to Ipsos Mori's latest "issues index" listed the economy, race relations and immigration, crime and unemployment as the most important problems facing the country today. But, with the TV debates sucking the life out of the campaign, none has made a significant impact. Perhaps, with the distractions over, the real campaign starts now – albeit a truncated one – and they may at last be tackled in the final few days.

Rochdale has a long history of immigration: almost one in five of its residents – and a 10th of its councillors – are Asian. Race relations in the main have been harmonious. However, data from the socio-demographic analysts CACI show that the town suffers one of the highest unemployment rates in the country; the jobseekers' allowance claimant rate of 8.66 per cent – and rising – is the 60th worst out of all the 650 constituencies in the UK. Mrs Duffy's brief reference to "all these Eastern Europeans ... coming in" should be seen in this context.

Such concerns would have been tackled directly during the 2005 election campaign, when Mr Howard was widely condemned over a poster proclaiming that "It is not racist to impose limits on immigration". The content of the debate until Wednesday suggested that the Conservatives had been cowed from tackling the issue in such a blatant manner. The Tory manifesto talks vaguely about "promoting integration" and imposing an annual cap on migrants – although their rivals insist the latter is enough to amount to a "dog-whistle" appeal to those with more extreme views.

Mrs Duffy may have done Mr Cameron a favour by raising immigration for him; one of his strongest passages of the latest televised debate was his robust criticism of the Lib Dem proposals for an "amnesty" on illegal immigrants.

The question now is whether Mr Cameron will abandon his caution and attempt to capitalise on the opportunity with a populist appeal to those concerned about immigration, or maintain his steady-as-she-goes course. With less than a week of campaigning left, it seems unlikely that he'd take the risk. In any case, the creeping increase in the Tory poll lead and the rush of newspaper endorsements might just do the job for him; Cameron's strategists believe they can pull away from their challengers in the final days of the campaign.

Ivor Gaber, a political campaign analyst at London's City University, said the lure of people like Mrs Duffy would not be enough to tempt a change in direction. The benefits of her intervention into the debate may be reaped elsewhere.

He said: "The Mrs Duffys of this world were never going to vote Conservative, or Lib Dem for that matter. Given her age, she would either vote Labour or not at all.

"All three campaigns have been lacklustre but disenchantment with politics, much heightened but not invented by the expenses saga, was suddenly presented with a 'home' when Clegg burst on to the scene in Manchester three weeks ago."

Like his leader, the local Labour candidate has attempted to move on – by pretending that the whole affair never happened. Although Simon Danczuk welcomed the Prime Minister to Rochdale in the last week – and, it appears, ushered Mrs Gillian Duffy over to meet him – the latest "news item" on his website is a visit from the Foreign Office minister Baroness Kinnock more than a week ago.

The Liberal Democrats regained Rochdale by a margin of 442 votes at the last general election, although subsequent boundary changes have whittled it down to 336. After the Duffy debacle, Labour strategists may feel compelled to make that 337.

Mrs Duffy's neighbour, Irene White, is also having a rethink. She said: "This has made me think about who I am going to vote for now. I don't know if I should feel sorry for Mr Brown or not. He said he had a moment, but to call someone a bigot is not having a moment. Maybe he thought he couldn't handle her because she is an outspoken Rochdale lass."

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