Steve Richards: Why did Brown make this blunder?

In releasing his frustration about an incident that had gone well, he managed to make matters much worse. He cannot read political situations any more

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Gordon Brown's campaign moves from being so controlled that he was scared of saying anything, to one where he is caught calling a Labour voter a bigot. No one could accuse Brown of being in control yesterday afternoon.

Elections are based on an illusion that political leaders like and respect every single voter they meet. Voters are allowed to harangue leaders, but never the other way around. In private, no doubt leaders across the world despair of voters that they meet, but they never do so in public. In being recorded unaware by a microphone Brown has smashed the illusion into pieces. The spell is broken. When he meets voters in the future they will wonder what he is really thinking.

I assume, although I am not wholly certain, that most voters will side with the voter, and not the leader caught by a microphone and then caught again being filmed on a radio show listening to the tape, looking as if he was being tortured. The look was accurate. Acutely aware of how this would play, Brown was in political hell.

The entire sequence was destined to happen at some point. Because Brown is obsessed with the media he assumes he is media-aware. He is not. Neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron would make the mistake of continuing to speak when a microphone was still attached to them. But ever since Brown became leader, indeed from the day he launched his campaign to replace Blair, when the autocue blocked the cameras' view of his opening speech, he has shown little awareness of how television works.

Brown has no senior media adviser with him who understands as a matter of instinct that microphones are dangerous instruments. Combine this complacency with his capacity to get explosively angry even when he has no cause to be so, and the ingredients for yesterday's nightmare for Labour were in place.

He had absolutely no cause to be angry yesterday. There is at the heart of Labour's calamity one burning question that is not easy to answer. By any objective judgement Brown's original exchange with the voter, Gillian Duffy, went well. Both came out of it rather endearingly. She was passionate, but polite. I sense that she almost liked "Gordon", who she later praised as an excellent Chancellor.

Unlike some leaders, Brown listened attentively and engaged with each of her points. He even managed a joke or two. She ended by congratulating him on improvements to schools. Their conversation was one of the freshest in his arid campaign, a mini-triumph for a previously too buttoned-up leader. But within seconds Brown was in his car declaring, "That was a disaster ... whose idea was that?... Just ridiculous". It was not a disaster. Whoever had the idea deserved some praise. It was not ridiculous.

Goodness knows what is going on in Brown's exhausted mind when he makes these wholly misjudged, angry exclamations. We can only guess. Here is my attempt to address the mystery at the heart of yesterday's drama. Why was Brown so angry in the first place?

The most fundamental answer goes back a long way, to 1992, when he became shadow Chancellor after Labour's fourth successive defeat. From his appointment, he resolved with a steely discipline never to say a word that undermined his projection of Labour being a party that could be trusted on the economy. An instinctively controlling personality sought to control how he appeared in every media outlet. He avoided any situation where he might accidentally say something that would be seen as a gaffe.

Fast-forward to this election campaign and, until this week, Brown was still opting for controlled situations, meeting reliable Labour supporters in carefully chosen locations. Even the televised debates were governed by comforting rules that make too much spontaneity impossible. But in his exchange with Gillian Duffy he was, almost for the first time in 20 years, exposed in a public context. For a few minutes he did not know what would happen next. Wisely, Labour's strategists had decided their lifeless campaign needed some sparks, even if they did not have this particular explosion in mind. I am told Brown was also keen, in theory, to meet so-called ordinary voters.

But not used to conversing authentically in public, Brown assumed that his few minutes with Gillian Duffy was a disaster. The rest of us watched and thought he was doing well. He felt he was drowning because he was not entirely in control. Once one of the sharpest readers of politics, he cannot recognise any longer what is and is not a disaster, equating only total control of public situations as a success.

One of the reasons why he works on the assumption that success is catastrophic is partly because his self-confidence is gone. Most of the time he reads that his leadership is a disaster. Presumably he assumed that an exchange in which a Labour voter criticised his policies would be reported as a catastrophe. What would have been in his mind? Possibly he thought of Blair's clash with a voter about the health service at the 2001 election, which was portrayed as bad news for Labour. That was when the party was well ahead in the polls.

Trailing in third place, Brown lives in fear of anything that could make matters worse. In releasing his fearful frustration about an incident that had gone well, he managed to make matters much, much worse. He cannot read political situations any more.

This is such a weird, unpredictable campaign that I have no idea how this wacky sequence will play out. As I write, Brown has left the house of Britain's most famous voter, looking terrible, smiling manically like Basil Fawlty when he knows he is in trouble. I am also getting calls from Tory strategists suggesting that the election is now over. Perhaps it is. But in the current, wild circumstances it is not impossible that voters will have some sympathy for Brown, a figure captured by a microphone when he thought he was speaking in private, tortured by the recording on camera in a radio studio, unaware that he was being filmed, and then racing to the house of the voter in order – pathetically – to apologise. Perhaps Labour's poll rating will go up. Anything can happen in this campaign.

The more likely consequence is a further deflation of confidence in Labour's entire campaign. Brown will be even more self-conscious when meeting "real" voters. Apparently he will continue to do so. The episode also distracts attention from his preparations for tonight's debate. Yesterday afternoon Brown was supposed to be in a rehearsal and instead was in Ms Duffy's home in Rochdale, a surreal twist. Still, Brown was over-rehearsed in the first two debates. Perhaps he will loosen up a bit if he has spent most of his time in the build-up apologising to a single voter.

The most dangerous element of this sequence for Labour was Ms Duffy's parting words. She declared that she was not planning to vote Labour at the election. Of all the moods whirling around this election the anti-Labour one is strongest. Those who wallow in disillusionment suddenly have a heroine.

The real danger for Labour is not what Gordon Brown said to Gillian Duffy, but what she said to him. Fairly or not, Gillian Duffy speaks for many voters.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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