Gillian Duffy: Rochdale Granny

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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."

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The number of GP practices with 10 or more doctors has grown by 75 per cent
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game