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Leading article: More a lapse than a catastrophe

There is probably not a politician in history who has never been tempted to say what Gordon Brown said yesterday about a member of the voting public.

Mr Brown's mistakes – and they were serious mistakes – were to yield to temptation, and to forget that he was still wearing a microphone before he let off steam. Blaming his aides for what he called a "disaster" and, worse, calling Gillian Duffy a "bigoted woman" may well go down as the gaffe of this campaign. There will be a cost.

How high that cost turns out to be depends on the response of the rest of the voting public. Mr Brown's own response was to make an abject apology on the radio and then return to Rochdale to prostrate himself, metaphorically, before Mrs Duffy in her own home. Forty minutes later, he described himself as a "penitent sinner" and said that his apology had been accepted. He went out of his way to use the word "sorry". There was no word from Mrs Duffy.

Mr Brown's unguarded remarks have the potential to cause particular electoral damage. First, because they chime with the Prime Minister's reputation for being rude and short-tempered. Second, because they reinforce a widespread view of politicians as contemptuous of those whose votes they must periodically solicit. And, third, because they demonstrate the extent to which campaigning has become stage-managed. Mr Brown took it for granted that he should have been protected from awkward customers. If there were more encounters between party leaders and "ordinary" voters, perhaps both sides would be better able to take the less-than-perfect ones in their stride.

That the other parties will continue to make hay with Mr Brown's gaffe must be taken for granted – for all the efforts of Labour's smooth-talkers to "spin" it away. Yet how many people can honestly say they have never let off steam in a similar way? You can argue that, as Prime Minister, Mr Brown has a responsibility to be more careful, even that someone in his position should not even think the thoughts he carelessly articulated. Our view is that this moment has to be set in the wider context and kept in proportion.

This evening, in the crucial last televised debate, Mr Brown will defend his record in government and set out Labour's plans for the national economy. The country faces a difficult few years; we need to listen to what the three party leaders say on the big issues of the day. Gordon Brown's lapse in Rochdale is not one of them.