Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives states that ‘anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment!’.
From now on, I suspect, any political instance of this law in action will be known as the ‘Brown Variant’, after unguarded remarks about a woman he had just spoken to on a walkabout were broadcast to the world. He condemned Gillian Duffy as a ‘bigot’ into a radio mic he didn’t realise was still live.
Unsurprisingly, the press have pounced. What is surprising is that this is the first serious gaffe on any side in a flawless, highly polished election campaign. Everything is marshalled and scrubbed until it has passed the hygiene test. All the leaders have been flawless until now – Brown is usually careful to have his own radio mic. Tellingly, he didn’t this time. Instinct suggests there was poor planning by Brown’s minders and that they ignored local intel.
In such circumstances, a walkabout was always going to have ‘disaster’ written all over it. Everyone makes mistakes, but in such a pristine, polished atmosphere, the first slip is always going to be big news.
Gordon Brown has been under enormous pressure – in football terms, he’s been on a nil nil draw with seconds to go, whilst the goalie is run up the field and set up to try and score a decisive corner in the dying seconds of the game, since the first leaders’ debate.
So is this gaffe an election-changing moment? Possibly, but possibly not in the way the right wing press may be hoping. Naturally, the Sun etc are throwing vast amounts of money (£50,000 has been mentioned) in Gillian Duffy’s direction in the hope that she’ll go for Brown’s jugular with them. But she is old school Labour – she may be furiously angry but she still may not want to risk destroying the party for the sake of an (admittedly rude) off the cuff, private comment that happened to be broadcast by mistake.
Mrs Duffy strikes me as a pretty ordinary woman, however, and these are straitened times – presented with enough cash, she may well take the filthy tabloid lucre. If she does, though, Gordon’s spinners will find they have a chink of light.
Another thing to bear in mind is that Brown has behaved impeccably since, taking the blame squarely on the chin and apologising. He’s done well by fronting up and remaining calm. And, once the dust has settled, this human side, this leader with edges in an election of soft, polished curves, might actually go over rather well. Certainly the media are fascinated – the 24/7 news cycle, desperate to cover every moment of the debacle, even shot endless minutes of Duffy’s front door as Brown went in to apologise.
However, by stoically doing the right thing – shouldering the blame, apologising and getting on with the campaign – Brown could give the populace just what they didn’t realise they’d wanted all along: a political campaign that isn’t polished to within an inch of its life and that has a genuine sense of danger and surprise. If only Brown had been braver and tackled bigotry in the wake of the comment.
There is, of course, one saving grace for Gordon, one place where he should be able to shine – the debate tomorrow night. It’ll make interesting viewing in the wake of this gaffe.