Gordon Brown and the 'bigot'

The PM's two words that brought his campaign to a thudding halt... and what it means for the next few days on the trail

As one colleague at the newspaper office I work in said, "I haven't seen so many journalists crowded around the TV since 9/11."

What were we watching? A door, actually. A door in Rochdale (a town up the road from Manchester). This was Gillan Duffy's place, of course, and inside were Mrs Duffy and one Mr Gordon Brown, and here was the banana skin moment we'd been waiting for in the 2010 UK election.

Brown was there to say sorry, to say very very sorry, for earlier in the day he'd been recorded by Sky News calling Duffy a "bigoted woman". He'd been out talking to, you know, ordinary people, and found himself chatting to Duffy, an old Labour supporter who raised concerns about immigration.

"You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're, you're -- but all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking in from?" she asked, among other things. The clever answer would have been to say "eastern Europe, probably", but instead the prime minister fumbled his way through a wind-up chat about her grandchildren, then headed back for the Jag.

Unfortunately for Gordon, he'd forgotten to remove the lapel microphone, and Sky News heard him upbraid his aides, like this: "That was a disaster. They should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? ... She's just a, sort of, bigoted woman."

In scenes that at moments made In the Thick of It (if you're a fan, do visit Malcolm Tucker's election briefing for the Guardian) seem like a tame documentary, Brown was swiftly off to a radio interview, where he appeared oblivious to the fact that radio studios tend to have webcams up in the corners these days, and offered his apology with slumped shoulders and head in hands.

Then off to that house in Rochdale, and in went Gordon, for nearly a fricking hour, while we stared at the door, demented hacks that we are. He emerged and his scowl had turned into a clownish grin. And Twitter was flicking over -- with warning hash tags of #bigotlady and #bigotgaffe -- like an autocue on absinthe, and the 24-hour news channels were zooming in on the Twitterati, and the Twitterati were tweeting, Look the TV are looking at us and, well, the media was eating itself delightedly.

But for all the hysteria of the day, this is a hell of a moment in a tight, tight campaign. (Did you hear about the yellow surge? Yes, of course you did. The Lib Dems are THE story.) The problem isn't so much the two-sides-of-Gordon-Brown stuff, nor his media ineptitude. Everyone knows about that, and in a perverse way revelations about his clunking fist off-stage behaviour have done him no harm -- instead playing to the idea of a tough leader, and a useful contrast to the fake tan stylings on Tony Blair and David Cameron.

No, what will really stick to the windscreen of Gordon the Big Engine is the reopening of the immigration debate. Tomorrow's papers are just flashing up on the telly news as I write, and while everyone -- including, gasp, the Financial Times -- is leading with Gordon's gaffe, the Daily Mail tellingly puts it this way: "DEMONISED: THE GRANNY WHO DARED TO UTTER THE I-WORD".

Immigration has only fleeting figured in a campaign to date dominated by the issue of spending and the drama of the TV debates (last of three tomorrow night). It's simmered away, but this will flick it up to boiling point. And as Brown knows -- for this is precisely what led him to say what he said, albeit in what he believed to be a private setting -- there is a large chunk of the UK population that, sometimes bigoted, sometimes not, are concerned about immigration. It's a foreground issue now, and while the Tories and Lib Dems will be ready to discuss it, Brown has sent a thuddlingly clear message that he doesn't want to talk about it all.