Once the voice of disillusioned former Labour supporters, all Gillian Duffy’s staged encounter with Nick Clegg this morning shows is that she’s become another puppet for the Miliband camp, says Harry Cole
When Rochdale pensioner Mrs Duffy went out to get a pint of milk on the 29 April last year, little did she know that her simple probing would encapsulate, in a word, what media commentaters and pundits had been trying to explain for all the years that Gordon Brown was at the forefront of British politics.
Brown’s spiteful dismissal of Duffy as a “bigot” confirmed what many had known for years, but had been unable to proof comprehensively – that the Brown the public saw, with his awkward, unnerving attempt at a smile and his wonky tie, was not the same mobile phone-throwing, venomous, raging operator who had been flailing around behind closed doors for the best part of a decade.
The power of the Mrs Duffy phenomenon was the element of surprise. She caught not only Brown, but Labour and the media, off guard. Gordon tried to get “Gillian” to come outside with him after an hour of begging and groveling apologies, but it was too late, the damage was done. The prime minister had been unmasked.
Fast forward a year and Mrs Duffy has tackled another politician. It appears she has struck again on her way to the shops, but what good fortune for this lady to bump into two such high profile types in the space of just twelve months. This politico isn’t quite as unpopular or loathed as Gordon, but then he hasn’t had the same amount of time to drive the country at full speed into a brick wall.
Strangely though Nick Clegg didn’t look very surprised to come face to face with the only famous resident of Rochdale (besides John Peel, that is) when he rocked up in the town. There was Mrs Duffy waiting, ready to pounce. The BBC News Channel knew to cut over immediately. There were TV cameras and paps everywhere. How did they know what was about to happen?
How Clegg knew depends on your political colours, but he didn’t call her a racist or lie to her face and he certainly didn’t slag her off the second she was out of earshot. He may have been a little patronising, but he proved why he and not Gordon Brown is the one arriving in Rochdale in limos these days. However, at the end of the day it’s irrelevant how he did as it was not real. We did not learn an unexpected truth here, Mrs Duffy was neutered. Her line of questioning was remarkably similar to what Labour have been saying in the last few weeks. Had someone briefed her? Mrs Duffy certainly had a mischievous twinkle in her eye throughout the meeting. The whole plan was completely transparent. Just look how happy she was when Miliband won the leadership. Was her role as an attack weapon discussed at subsequent meetings?
It seems that in just a year Mrs Duffy has gone from being a thorn in the side of the Labour Party and the final nail in the coffin of their 2010 campaign, to their darling and a spin-bomb for Tom Baldwin to deploy for a quick morning headline hit. But the power of Mrs Duffy has gone. Once she represented a silent majority of working class people who felt that Labour had let them down. Now that she is just another Miliband apparatchik pushing focused group lines she falls flat.
Mrs Duffy was real. Mrs Duffy was anti-politics. Labour’s attempt to capture a weakness and throw it back into their enemy’s face hs left a one-time political phenomenon dead in the water.