From station to Subway - the flight of Iain Gray

IT COULD have been a scene from the political satire The Thick of It - but the cameras were filming it for real.

The would-be First Minister was yesterday cornered in a sandwich shop by protesters after they forced him to beat a hasty retreat by unexpectedly "monstering" a Labour Party photocall.

What had begun as the carefully stage-managed entrance of Scottish leader Iain Gray at Glasgow Central Station descended into chaos within seconds when he was confronted by demonstrators shouting and waving a placard in his face.

Mr Gray had planned to highlight Labour's pledge to reinstate the axed Glasgow Airport rail link, but was faced with angry chants about the Labour-run city council's own funding cuts - to a care centre forced to move for the Commonwealth Games, due to be held in 2014.

Smiling at the cameras during his choreographed climb up the steps of a side entrance to the station - briefed to reporters in advance - he shook hands with the station manager and embraced Glasgow East Labour MP Margaret Curran before turning to start his walkabout.

However, the politicians were suddenly confronted by shouts from nine members of the Citizens United Public Service Cuts group, who had rushed across the station concourse.

Mr Gray glanced at the TV cameras, bemused, before being quickly guided back down the stairs by Labour minders, followed by the protesters and assorted media.

Sean Clerkin, the protesters' leader, pushed past a Labour official to pursue Mr Gray down the staircase, repeatedly shouting phrases such as "Against Tory cuts" and "No Tory cuts - you shouldn't be managing the Tory cuts".

Reaching the bottom of the steps, the Labour entourage turned left on to Union Street, with Mr Clerkin continuing to shout at Mr Gray, but within a few paces the opposition leader was hustled into a branch of the Subway sandwich chain.

But, rather than finding a safe haven, the opposition leader became wedged into the back of the shop as it quickly filled with protesters and Press. A female protester, whose taunts on the street included "You are all corrupt, every single one of youse", continued shouting inside.

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Mr Gray was trapped facing Mr Clerkin as TV crews climbed on top of adjacent tables to get a clear view of the confrontation.

One member of staff behind the counter laughed nervously, but another was decidedly unimpressed.

"Stillie from Scotstounhill" later Tweeted: "Iain Gray just stumbled into my work being hurled abuse at by protesters. Not one of them bought as much as a cookie. ****."

However, within two minutes, Mr Gray's caravan made to escape, with the scrum of protesters, reporters and photographers barging through the doors, past a man eating a chilli roll, and nearly crushing a holidaying schoolboy who was trying to exit at the same time.

The pursuit resumed as Mr Gray and his posse continued up Union Street to the taxi rank at the front of Central Station, crossing the road right in front of a lorry.

One Labour official was heard telling Mr Gray: "Keep walking."

After some final shouts from the protesters, Mr Gray was ushered into a taxi and left.

The leader abandoned his plans to take a train from the station to his next engagement in Irvine, Ayrshire, switching instead to a walkabout in Sauchiehall Street - five blocks away.

Mr Clerkin said Mr Gray had told him in the sandwich shop: "You should not be doing this. This is not right. I do not want to talk to you."

Mr Clerkin said of the Labour leader's behaviour: "God help Scotland if he is going to be the next First Minister.

"He did the wrong thing in politics - he ran away. He should have stood his ground or agreed to meet."

The protester said Mr Gray had contrasted sharply with the reaction of Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, whom he had similarly ambushed at the launch of the party's election campaign in Edinburgh last week.

Mr Clerkin said: "Annabel Goldie stayed her ground and argued her case. She shook hands and it was very polite."

A spokesman for Mr Gray said later: "Iain was making the sensible response to the situation. He was behaving in a dignified manner in relation to an unruly mob.

"It was impossible to have a reasonable discussion - this lot were just screaming and shouting. It would have been discourteous to commuters in the station."

Mr Gray later attempted to brush off the incident with a bizarre comparison to previous gruelling experiences.

He said: "I spent two years working in the civil war in Mozambique, I've been to Rwanda two months after the genocide, I walked the killing fields in Cambodia and I was in Chile three days after Pinochet was demitted from office.

"I've been a lot of places, seen a lot of things - that certainly wasn't the worst of them."

A spokeswoman for Subway said: "Subway cannot comment."