It was a day like any other campaign day. Then Mrs Duffy took to the stage

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After insult is caught on microphone, PM is forced to embark on apology dash

A grandmother who popped out to buy a loaf of bread and bumped into the Prime Minister yesterday found herself the unwitting principal in an encounter that has already become one of the defining moments of the 2010 general election campaign.

The meeting with Gillian Duffy wrecked Gordon Brown's preparations for today's televised leaders' debate and threatens to haunt him to polling day – and beyond. Pictures of the humbled Prime Minister arriving at Mrs Duffy's pebble-dashed terraced house in Rochdale, Lancashire, to apologise for calling the lifelong Labour supporter a "bigot", were beamed around the world.

What he said indoors during the 39-minute meeting remains unknown.

The blunder horrified Labour strategists, who had been pinning their hopes on today's debate about economic issues. Particularly damaging appeared to be the juxtaposition between his public statement to the 65-year-old widow – "Very nice to see you" – with his private thoughts seconds later: "That was a disaster...should never have put me with that woman... ridiculous...bigoted woman."

The extraordinary chain of events began when Mrs Duffy spotted a gaggle of camera crews, journalists and Labour apparatchiks surrounding the Prime Minister, who was in the town to watch young offenders clean a cycle path.

Mrs Duffy seized the opportunity to challenge Mr Brown over the national debt, and the Labour candidate Simon Danczuk ushered her over to meet the Prime Minister. Mrs Duffy began by telling him she was "absolutely ashamed of saying I'm Labour", and went on to complain about the scale of the deficit, taxes paid by pensioners and university tuition fees. In passing, she also mentioned "all these eastern Europeans" heading for Britain.

The meeting ended amicably and Mrs Duffy told reporters she was definitely going to vote Labour after all.

However, seconds later Mr Brown's private thoughts – caught on the microphone attached to his lapel – were broadcast on national television, and they were very different from his public platitudes. After he got into his limousine, the Prime Minister snapped at his adviser, Justin Forsyth, that the meeting had been a "disaster" and demanded to know whose idea it had been. As the flustered aide said he did not know, Mr Brown pinned the blame on his long-serving assistant, Sue Nye.

Mrs Duffy was still only a few yards away when astonished reporters caught up with her to relay what her Prime Minister really thought of her.

The clearly upset pensioner replied: "He's going to lead this county and he has called an ordinary woman who has just come up and asked him questions ... and he's calling me a bigot."

Back at Labour headquarters in London it was clear the party had a public relations disaster on its hands. Their horror deepened as Mr Brown was forced to listen in a Manchester studio to a recording of his remarks during an interview with Radio 2's Jeremy Vine.

As the tape played, the Prime Minister, who had obviously forgotten he was being filmed, held his head in his hands. Watching in London, Lord Mandelson, Labour's campaign supremo, ordered his press team to get a message to Mr Brown to warn him he was on film. Too late: the picture of the despairing Labour leader will become an enduring image of the campaign.

The party launched a desperate damage-limitation exercise as soon as he left the studio. The Prime Minister called her at home to apologise, telling her she was "a good woman", while Lord Mandelson went on air to tell the world Mr Brown was "mortified". The Labour high command feared it still had not done enough and dispatched the Prime Minister to Mrs Duffy's home to eat humble pie.

With battalions of journalists outside, Mr Brown spent 39 minutes with the pensioner. Wearing an awkward grin, he emerged to say sorry and insist she had accepted his apology.

Tony Blair's former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, said the Prime Minister had been determined to "atone" for his blunder. "I saw him at his Manchester hotel," Mr Campbell wrote on his blog. "I don't think I have ever seen him so angry with himself ... She was so clearly not a bigot, and he knew that."

Last night Mrs Duffy's niece, also called Gillian, said she did not believe that her aunt would be satisfied with the apology: "He has shown his true colours. He's always trying to pretend to be so nice and in touch with the people, but he's obviously not." Earlier, Mrs Duffy told reporters she had already filled in her postal vote for Labour. It is now unlikely to be sent.

In an email, Mr Brown also apologised last night to activists for the damage to the Labour campaign. Labour strategists admitted preparations for the debate were in disarray. One said: "We fully accept there will be a feeding frenzy over what happened in Rochdale. Gordon will have to address it in the debate."

The final televised leaders' debate will be screened on BBC1 at 8.30pm

When they thought we weren't listening...

John Major, 1993

After an interview with ITN's Michael Brunson, the then Prime Minister attacked several ministers – forgetting that his microphone was still on. He called them ''bastards'' that he wanted to ''crucify''.

Ronald Reagan, 1984

A radio soundcheck by the US President was transmitted, causing some consternation. He announced: "My fellow Americans. I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes."

The Prince of Wales, 2005

On a ski slope posing for a photoshoot with his two sons, he was captured on mic complaining to his progeny about the BBC's royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell: "Bloody people. I can't stand that man. He's so awful, he really is.''

David Evans, 1997

Eight weeks before polling day, during an interview at a school, the Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield said that his Labour rival, Melanie Johnson, had "never done a proper job" and was "a single girl" mother to "three bastard children". Ms Johnson won the seat.

George W Bush, 2000

The then US presidential candidate called a New York Times reporter, Adam Clymer, a "major league asshole'' before a campaign speech in Illinois.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chef / Managers

£24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This contract caterer is proud ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'