I was a campaign virgin when I saw Gordon Brown meet Mrs Duffy

“Mrs Duffy,” the reporter began, a smudge of fake concern loitering between his eyes, “we have to tell you the prime minister just said something . . .”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

It was Duffy Day, or Biddygate, or Gaffe-a-thon: Rochdale, 2010. I was a campaign virgin.

I stood in the press huddle as Gillian Duffy heckled Gordon Brown. Because she was an elderly woman who had always voted Labour, he couldn’t punch her in the face, or tell her to piss off. It’s one of the principles of campaigning. There must be hugs, when love there is none.

Duffy and Brown were expected to reconcile in order to fix the Britain that is not broken: such is the importance of symbolism, rather than fact, in political campaigning. That is why Cameron goes jogging and strokes foetuses in utero. Babies are not vulnerable enough to demonstrate his goodness. He needs something smaller.

As Brown left, the press gathered round Duffy to fill a fifth paragraph, gild their story: Biddy assaults PM. Mrs Duffy kept asking us, helplessly, “Has David Cameron ever had a proper job?” No one answered her; that wasn’t the story. The story was: Biddy assaults PM. As the huddle dispersed, I followed her. I wanted to answer her question. Nope.

A television news producer arrived. It was Sky. It is usually Sky when the worst happens; the Apocalypse travels with them in their emergency news vehicle, drinks coffee.

“Mrs Duffy,” he began, a smudge of fake concern loitering between his eyes, “we have to tell you the prime minister just said something . . .”

Brown had called her a “bigoted woman” in the car and had not taken off his microphone. Blair did this once, I was told, at the BBC. The sound technicians heard him pissing in the loo. I think he did it deliberately.

Mrs Duffy looked surprised.

Brown went on the Jeremy Vine show to apologise, forgot there was a camera, and was photographed with his head in his hands. He went to Mrs Duffy’s home. I missed both of these because I was new to the campaign and I believed in the schedule; hell, I even believed that none of this mattered. When Brown prostrated himself before Nemesis, I was buying a skirt.

We went to lunch with Peter Mandelson, as punishment. He said it wouldn’t have happened to Blair because Blair wouldn’t do a walkabout on a council estate. I left early because I had to file. Hackette leaves lunch in tears, said Private Eye; everyone was at it.

I was allowed five minutes with Brown. I think there was mirth in his eyes, but it was the mirth of fatalism: you laugh because laughter, unlike dignity, cannot be taken from you. I wrote the truth – that they’d broken him – for the Daily Telegraph and donated my fee to the Labour Party. When I told a Telegraph executive what I’d done she said, “Don’t give my money to Labour.” “My money now,” I said, as the remnants of the postwar consensus collapsed.

Suzanne Moore is away

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

Free trial CSS