"A week is a long time in politics," the wily British politician Harold Wilson once observed. Sometimes, though, a long time in politics is a lot less than that. It took just a matter of minutes for Gordon Brown, the leader of the Labour Party, to inflict what may be a fatal blow to his fast-fading hopes of remaining the British prime minister. The instrument of his downfall was Mrs Gillian Duffy, a retired local authority care worker from Rochdale, a market town in the north of England.
Mrs Duffy, 65, had popped out for a loaf of bread, when she suddenly found her hand being pumped by Mr Brown, who had hit the campaign trail in the hope of proving he still had the common touch. A conversation ensued in which Mrs Duffy expressed concern about the number of eastern European migrants coming to Britain and the impact they might have on her grandchildren's employment prospects. The prime minister nodded and smiled, joked that Mrs Duffy was "wearing the right colours" (her coat collar was Labour party red), then jumped back into his chauffeur-driven Jaguar. "Seems like a nice man," she told reporters covering the event.
On the back seat of the Jaguar, though, Mr Brown was less thrilled with the unscripted encounter. "That was a disaster," he complained to an aide. "Should never have put me with that woman." "What went wrong?" the aide asked. "Everything," came the reply. "She's just a sort of bigoted woman." The world knows all this because Mr Brown had forgotten to take off his TV lapel microphone, which was still switched on. Barely an hour later, an appalled prime minister, was photographed, head in hands, listening to his words played back during a live BBC radio interview.
Not long after, the black Jaguar was pulling up in front of Mrs Duffy's terraced house, its passenger anxious to make amends. "I am a penitent sinner," Mr Brown told reporters after 40 minutes on the sofa in Mrs Duffy's living room. "I am mortified by what has happened." It is too soon to gauge if Labour's hopes of keeping the keys of Downing Street that it has held since 1997 have been - as the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph put it - "undone by widow out buying bread". Nor is it clear which of the other two main parties is likely to benefit from the prime minister's gaffe.
With less than a week to the British general election, all three main political parties are still running neck and neck and the final result seems almost impossible to predict. There has never been an election like this one in Britain, if not in living memory, then at least only in the recollection of the most ancient of voters. Not since 1929, when Ramsay Macdonald's Labour party found itself 32 seats short of an absolute majority, has a three-way tie loomed.
For three weeks now, the opinion polls, testing the waters almost daily, have ticked and twitched, but failed to show a decisive breakthrough by anyone. On April 10, only four days after the election was called, the Conservatives held a healthy seven-point lead over Labour, with the Liberal Democrats in third place, with 16 per cent support. A week later, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats was declared the unexpected winner in the first of three televised debates. In the following days, opinion polls showed Lib Dem support shooting up to 28 per cent, narrowly overtaking Labour, while Tory fortunes slipped to 32 per cent.
The latest indications, taken earlier this week, suggest that Lib Dem support has slipped slightly, while Labour's hopes of a comeback have stalled, even before Mr Brown's ill-fated Rochdale excursion. Meanwhile, despite winning the third TV debate on Thursday, the Conservatives leader David Cameron seems unable to restore a sufficiently commanding lead to take him safely home to No10 Downing Street.
What will this mean on Friday, May 7, the day on which the victor traditionally heads off to Buckingham Palace to offer his services to the Queen? There is every possibility of the Cameron family arriving in Downing Street, household possessions loaded in a pantechnicon, only to find that Gordon Brown is refusing to give up vacant possession. That is exactly what happened in February 1974, the last time Britain had a hung parliament. The Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, lost his parliamentary majority but refused to concede defeat. Holed up in No10, a humiliated Heath was eventually forced to offer his resignation four days later, as Labour's Harold Wilson formed a minority government.
Heath's defeat came virtually out of the blue. The odds on a hung parliament on May 7 have been shortening almost daily over the past week, a prospect which sent The Sun newspaper, an ardent supporter this time of Mr Cameron, into full editorial hyperbole. Making its point with an illustration of a hangman's noose, The Sun warned its readers that they faced "a nightmare on Downing Street - a dangerous and weak coalition government."
Overnight, even the The Sun's Page 3 girl became a constitutional expert. "In legislatures with proportional representation," mused Becky, 24, from Ealing, "minority or coalition government is often the norm. I'd hate to live in a country like Italy that has had 61 governments in 65 years - even if I do like Italian food." The theme was taken up in a TV commercial spoofing the "Hung Parliament Party" which promised "behind-closed-doors politics", "indecision and weak government" and "a paralysed economy". And who was behind the "Hung Parliament Party"? The clue came in the punchline: "Getting us in couldn't be any easier. A vote for any party other than the Conservatives should do the job."
The target of the "Hung Parliament Party" was clearly Nick Clegg (the actor playing the party's "spokesman" bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lib Dem leader). But Clegg himself seems distracted at the prospect of playing kingmaker in either a pact with the Conservatives or Labour. On the latter, he initially suggested his party would not do anything to keep Labour in power, but amended this position barely a day later, after Lib-Dem activists became concerned that this might put off tactical voters who were considering supporting the party as a way of keeping the Tories out.
Now the Lib Dems say they could support a future Labour government, but that they would not tolerate Gordon Brown as prime minister if Labour finishes third on election day." I will work with anyone, I will work with a man from the Moon," was Mr Clegg's initial response to questions about a coalition government. "A man from the Moon but not Gordon Brown?" a reporter asked. "I don't think Gordon Brown - and I've got nothing personal about him - I just don't think the British people would accept that he could carry on as prime minister," came the reply.
Bizarrely, though, the prospect of coming third does not necessarily condemn Labour to the opposition benches. One of the great institutions on British election night is the BBC's swingometer, which measures the percentage points political parties need either to hang on to power or win office. Once a simple wooden triangle arrow that could be pushed from side to side, the swingometer now lives on the BBC website as a sophisticated web toy for voters to play with.
But perhaps not sophisticated enough. The swingometer is great in a two-party contest, but almost useless in a three-way election. In a conventional battle between Labour and the Conservatives, it shows that the Tories would need a seven-point swing to obtain the narrowest six-seat majority in the House of Commons. This would be no small task. Since 1951 only once has a swing of that magnitude been recorded: Tony Blair's historic victory of 1997 when Labour won a parliamentary majority of 10.2 percentage points and a landslide victory of 418 seats.
It is this massive majority that David Cameron finally hopes to chip away. But his task is considerably weakened by a resurgent Liberal Democrat party. Even a modest three per cent swing from Labour to the Lib Dems, results in a hung parliament. Anything less could well leave Gordon Brown in power. Even smaller swings from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems would also do immense damage to Mr Cameron's ambitions.
More complex calculations show that if the current opinion polls translate into actual votes next week, a future House of Commons could leave Labour - even if it finished third in the actual polls - as the largest party, but short of an overall majority by around 60 seats. Even the most generous prediction of Liberal Democrat support leaves the party grotesquely under-represented in term of the popular vote.A 30 per cent share of the vote produces around 110 Liberal Democrat MPs but leaves Labour - on 29 per cent - with perhaps 280.
Massive swings are also needed to win even quite small numbers of seats for Nick Clegg. A swing of 10 per cent from Labour to the Lib-Dems - equal to 1997 - gives them around 132 seats but only third place. While a swing of two per cent from the Conservatives would hand the Lib Dems more seats than at any election since 1923, yet still only result in 70 MPs. The confusion created by the opinion polls at least allows candidates of all parties to fall back on the standard defence of a politician facing defeat on the campaign trail:"The only poll that matters is the one on election day."
Next Thursday, May 6, may be the day when the old cliché of the hustings finally comes true.