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BBC debate: Rivals attack Theresa May over absence

Theresa May’s political rivals lined up to criticise her for not taking part in a seven-way general election debate.

She was accused of lacking “guts” and of “running away from the debate” during the 90 minute BBC TV event.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who represented the Conservatives, said “part of being a good leader is having a good, strong team”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not directly attack Mrs May’s absence as he clashed with Ms Rudd over cuts.

The prime minister ruled out appearing on televised debates soon after calling the election.

She said on Wednesday that she preferred “taking questions and meeting people” on the campaign trail rather than “squabbling” with other politicians.

At one point, Mr Corbyn asked “where is Theresa May, what happened to her?” as he defended his own leadership abilities.

But he engaged in a series of clashes with Ms Rudd over the squeeze on living standards and cuts to welfare as the debate heated up.

Mr Corbyn told her: “Have you been to a food bank? Have you seen people sleeping around our stations?

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“Have you seen the levels of poverty that exist because of your government’s conscious decisions on benefits?”

The Labour leader also highlighted his plans to end the public sector pay cap and introduce a £10 an hour living wage by 2020.

He said Labour would “ensure our manufacturing industry and jobs are protected”, and he was “absolutely sure” his spending plans added up.

Analysis: BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg

At the end of the debate, some of the audience I spoke to were clearly pretty fed up that Theresa May hadn’t turned up.

In contrast, they were pleased that Jeremy Corbyn had shown his face. For him, that decision seems to have been a tactical win. If elections really are a game, he took the points today.

But whether his performance will have the same impact on a wider audience, particularly undecided voters, is a different matter.

In the spin room, where the press were watching and senior politicians were trying to claim victory for their competitor, it didn’t feel like a wake or a celebration for any party in particular.

None of the participants achieved a big breakthrough moment. But nor, crucially, did any of them have a cringing disaster.

By polling day, tonight’s event may be remembered more for the day that Mrs May didn’t show, than anything that was actually said on the platform.

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Ms Rudd said the “squabbling” on display during the debate showed “the coalition of chaos in action”.

She said Mrs May had the strength to “take us through Brexit” and a vote for anyone else is a vote for Mr Corbyn “and that coalition”.

Media captionWhich party will help those in need?

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron launched a string of attacks on Mrs May. He said: “Where do you think Theresa May is tonight?

“Take a look out your window. She might be out there sizing up your house to pay for your social care.”

Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas said the “first rule of leadership is to show up”.

She added: “You don’t say it’s the most important election of our lifetime and not be bothered to show up.”

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said Mrs May was not there because “her campaign of soundbites is falling apart”.

SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson accused Mrs May of not having the “guts” to attend the debate, as he attacked Ms Rudd over cuts to the winter fuel allowance for pensioners in England.

Media captionLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn and UKIP’s Paul Nuttall clash over the economy

Ms Rudd said the Conservatives had “made a clear decision to protect the poorest in our society,” adding that “winter fuel payments won’t be available for billionaires” under her party’s policy.

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She dismissed her rivals’ claims as “fanciful”, saying they offered nothing but “bluff, bravado and tempting, shiny election promises”.

“The only question to consider is who should be in No 10 to steer Britain to a brighter future?” Ms Rudd asked.

“Jeremy Corbyn with his money tree, wish list manifesto and no plan for Brexit or Theresa May with her record of delivery.”

The panel also clashed over immigration.

The Green Party’s co-leader Caroline Lucas said she wanted to “make the case” for freedom of movement across the EU and the ability of people to be able to “live and love” in other countries.

“The Britain I love is a confident outward-looking country,” she said, which well knows the “benefits” of migration.

The UKIP leader Paul Nuttall denied claims he was demonising immigrants, but said: “We have to get the population under control.”

Media captionLeaders from seven parties were questioned on their leadership plans

The panel members also debated security and terrorism, the NHS, and US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of climate change agreements.

Labour said for weeks that Mr Corbyn would not attend the debate unless Mrs May was there – but he announced at lunchtime that he would take part.

He criticised the Tories for what he called “a stage-managed arms-length campaign”.

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Taking questions during a campaign visit in Bath, Mrs May said Mr Corbyn “seems to be paying far more attention to how many appearances on telly he’s doing, and he ought to be paying a little more attention to thinking about Brexit negotiations”.

Mrs May said she had taken on Mr Corbyn every week during Prime Minister’s Questions, adding that it was “so important” to be taking questions from voters.

“That’s why I’ve been doing that up and round the country,” she added.

Media captionTheresa May defends TV debate stance

The debate, moderated by Mishal Husain, was the latest in a series of special broadcasts before the general election on 8 June.

This includes two Question Time shows – one on 2 June featuring Mrs May and Mr Corbyn appearing separately, and a second on 4 June with Mr Farron and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.


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