Theresa May’s refusal to take part in a live TV election debate has come under fire from her political rivals, who accused her of “weakness” and taking the British public for granted.
Seven politicians took to the stage to fight it out on Wednesday, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s late decision to attend serving to highlight Ms May’s absence further.
The Prime Minister’s no-show was repeatedly raised with her stand in, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, taking flak from rivals over the Conservative party’s record.
The contest followed a difficult week for the Tories who have seen their poll lead shrink in the wake of Ms May’s U-turn on social care, with a YouGov seat projection eventually suggesting there could be a hung parliament.
In the live BBC debate, the party leaders and Ms Rudd clashed over benefits, Brexit, foreign policy, climate change and the arms trade - but Ms May’s absence was hammered home by the other participants at the beginning and end of the night.
Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood opened by claiming Ms May “won't turn up to these debates because her campaign of soundbites is falling apart.”
The SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson said it showed Ms May was “weak and wobbly”, while the audience clapped when Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said Ms May “can't be bothered” to turn up.
He added: “You're not worth Theresa May's time. Don't give her yours.”
Ms May refused to take part in head-to-head debates, which have also involved Ukip leader Paul Nuttall and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas, and was said to be catching up on Government business while Wednesday’s 90-minute programme took place.
Meanwhile, It was reported that Ms Rudd decided to keep her commitment to take part despite her father having died two days earlier.
Mr Corbyn - whose message was that the UK needs an economy that “works for all” - did not mention the Prime Minister’s absence, with a Labour source claiming it “spoke for itself”. He did engage Ms Rudd in the stand out early clash of the night, however.
In a heated exchange over disability benefits and the rising use of food banks, he said: “Amber Rudd seems so confident that this is a country at ease with itself - have you been to a food bank? Have you seen people sleeping around our train stations?”
Hitting back, she repeatedly accused Mr Corbyn of relying on a “magic money tree” to fund his election pledges.
Ms Rudd added: “I just have to take on some of Jeremy Corbyn's fantasy economics. He has this money-tree wish list in his manifesto.
“It's very easy to think about how you spend money, It's much harder to think about how you raise money.”
In another notable clash, Ms Lucas claimed to not know how Ms Rudd slept at night, while the Government she is part of sells more arms around the world than almost every other country.
Addressing the Home Secretary directly, she said: “My question is this really, why is Britain the second biggest arms dealer in the world?
“Why are we selling to 22 of the 30 countries on the Government’s own human rights watch list?
“Why do we make ten times more in arms sales to Saudi Arabia than we gave to Yemen in aid? I genuinely wonder how you sleep at night knowing those figures.”
The Government has recently approved £3.5bn worth of arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia and a stream of British ministers have visited the kingdom to solicit trade despite its ongoing involvement in the bombing campaign in Yemen.
In response, the Home Secretary said a strong arms industry was important to national defence.
Despite attacks from all sides, Ms Rudd sought to emphasise the Tory campaign message that Mr Corbyn, backed by some of the smaller parties, could form a “coalition of chaos” aimed at preventing Ms May from returning to No10 after June 8.
“You have heard the squabbling and discord of disagreement here tonight,” she said.
“You have seen the coalition of chaos here in action but in the quiet of the polling booth you have a clear choice.”
But the Home Secretary was laughed at by the audience as she called for people to “judge us on our record”, she then came under pressure over the so-called “dementia tax" shake-up of social care, the plan to axe the pension triple-lock and means-test the winter fuel payment worth up to £300 for elderly people.
Mr Farron said Ms May's refusal to set out what the cap on social care costs would be or who would lose their winter fuel payments meant she was asking voters for a “blank cheque”.
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