Jeremy Corbyn confronts Rudd over spending cuts in fractious TV debate

1 Jun

Jeremy Corbyn challenged Amber Rudd over the impact of the government’s spending cuts on Wednesday night, as he sought to exploit the cracks in the Conservatives’ general election campaign with his last-minute decision to take part in a live leaders’ debate on BBC1.

The Labour leader took on the home secretary, who was standing in for the absent Theresa May, over the government’s economic record in a scrappy 90-minute, seven-way televised debate in Cambridge.

“I would just say this to Amber, if she thinks this is a country at ease with itself: have you been to a food bank?” Corbyn said.

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

Rudd countered, saying: “The way to have people not using food banks is have a stronger economy.”

And she repeatedly attacked the Labour leader, accusing him of wanting to fund his manifesto promises from a “magic money tree”.

But the audience – chosen by the BBC to be politically balanced – laughed when Rudd said: “I would say, judge us on our record.”

The home secretary also questioned Corbyn’s leadership, pointing to the vote of no confidence in him by a majority of Labour MPs last summer.

Responding, Corbyn said: “Leadership is about understanding the people you represent. It’s about being prepared to learn. It’s about not being so high and mighty that you can’t take advice.”

BBC election debate

From left: Tim Farron, Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, Leanne Wood, Amber Rudd, Paul Nuttall and Angus Robertson with Mishal Husain (foreground). Photograph: Jeff Overs/PA/BBC

It later emerged that Rudd had decided to go ahead with her appearance in the debate despite the death of her elderly father on Monday night.

Corbyn, who had initially had not been expected to attend the debate, used a stump speech in Reading on Wednesday lunchtime to urge the prime minister to “go to Cambridge” and defend her policies publicly.

With the Labour leader and Rudd in the line-up were: Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron; Ukip leader Paul Nuttall; SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson; Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.

Corbyn’s last-minute decision to participate in the debate was a high stakes gamble for the Labour leader, who had struggled to explain the costings of his key childcare policy in a radio interview on Tuesday.

At the outset of the campaign, Corbyn’s spokesman suggested the choice on 8 June was about who would be Britain’s next prime minister, and a debate with other party leaders – and without May – would not help voters to make that decision.

But with the Conservatives’ poll lead narrowing, and May vulnerable on the issue of social care, Corbyn’s team believe the idea that May has ducked a debate will resonate with voters.

In a statement released on Wednesday afternoon, the Labour leader said: “I have never been afraid of a debate in my life. Labour’s campaign has been about taking our policies to people across the country and listening to the concerns of voters.

“The Tories have been conducting a stage-managed arms-length campaign and have treated the public with contempt.”

Speaking at a campaign event in Bath on Wednesday, May sought to laugh off the idea that she was frightened of taking part.

“Jeremy Corbyn seems to be paying far more attention to how many appearances on telly he’s doing. He ought to be paying a bit more attention to thinking about Brexit negotiations. That’s what I’m doing,” she said.

During the sometimes heated exchanges in Cambridge, Nuttall was attacked by the other parties for seeking to focus the debate on Islamic extremism, and controlling immigration.

Nuttall said: “Ukip will always protect those most at risk of wage compression from unskilled mass migration. Ukip will always stand up for those let down by the Westminster elite.”

Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, criticised “people like Paul and his hate-filled rhetoric”, and launched a staunch defence of immigration, describing the free movement of people as “the most wonderful gift”.

The SNP’s Robertson said: “This debate shames and demeans us all. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t understand the positive contribution people have made to this land and demonising those people is totally unacceptable.”

Farron, who has put Brexit at the centre of his campaign, repeatedly underlined the importance for the economy of staying in the EU single market.

“We need to remain in the single market or we will not be able to afford the NHS and social care,” he said.

“If Jeremy cared about having enough money to raise living standards, he would not have trooped through the lobbies with the Conservatives and Ukip to trigger article 50 and make Britain poorer.”

Amber Rudd, Leanne Wood, Caroline Lucas, Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn

From left: Amber Rudd, Leanne Wood, Caroline Lucas, Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn arrive for the debate. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Though the prime minister was absent from the debate, Brexit secretary David Davis and culture secretary Karen Bradley came to support Rudd in the so-called “spin room” of journalists in the Cambridge Union.

A Conservative spokesman said May was spending the evening in No 10, but refused to say if she had watched the debate.

With just a week to go before polling day, the Tories are keen to stick to the script of focusing on the opportunities presented by Brexit – and contrasting May’s leadership with Corbyn’s.

Several of the leaders in the debate criticised May’s decision not to participate. Lucas said: “The first rule of leadership is show up. You don’t call a general election saying it’s the most important in her lifetime and then not even bother to show up.”

‘We all know blokes like you’ – Leanne Wood attacks Paul Nuttall on EU – video

In Farron’s closing statement, he urged voters to make a cup of tea instead of watching Rudd’s final remarks.

“Amber Rudd is up next. She’s not the prime minister. The prime minister is not here tonight. She can’t be bothered. So why should you?

“In fact, Bake Off is on BBC2 next. Why not make yourself a brew. You’re not worth Theresa May’s time. Don’t give her yours.”

Rudd criticised Corbyn’s leadership, pointing out that a large number of his own MPs had joined a vote of no confidence against him, and repeating the Conservatives’ attack line that Labour could cooperate with other opposition parties in a “coalition of chaos”.

She urged people to support her party “in the quiet of the polling booth”.

Corbyn had been due to address large rallies in Swindon and Bristol on Wednesday night, but frontbenchers Angela Rayner and Jon Ashworth stood in for him.

Rayner, the shadow education secretary, told a crowd in Swindon that May was a “plastic Thatcher”, adding: “This prime minister is for turning but not for turning up.”

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