The absence of Theresa May was one of the main talking points as seven senior politicians traded blows in an unconventional television debate just eight days before Britain’s general election.
Mrs May refused to turn up to the BBC event in Cambridge despite the surprise decision earlier in the day by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, to attend.
Instead the prime minister was represented by Amber Rudd, home secretary, who — during a series of heated clashes — sought to depict her six rivals as a potential “coalition of chaos”.
The absence of Mrs May prompted her rivals to claim that she was running scared ahead of polling day on June 8.
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, tried to link her disappearance to the Tory plans for a shake-up of the care system: “Take a look out your window,” he said. “She might be out there sizing up your house to pay for your social care.”
Mr Farron suggested that the furore over those social care policies meant Mrs May was not a very good negotiator: “Imagine if it’s a bad [Brexit] deal, I mean, dementia tax bad,” he declared.
Caroline Lucas, co-head of the Green party, suggested Mrs May’s absence was telling: “The first rule of leadership is to show up.” Meanwhile, Leanne Wood, leader of Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said the Tory leader had not appeared because “her campaign of soundbites is falling apart”.
The Tories have claimed that Mrs May was too busy preparing for the summer Brexit negotiations to spend an hour and a half arguing with other political leaders.
Mrs May said earlier that she was taking questions from voters around the country instead of “squabbling” with rivals. She added that she already debated weekly with Mr Corbyn at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Greens’ co-leader Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, home secretary Amber Rudd, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, SNP leader in Westminster Angus Robertson and moderator Mishal Husain © Reuters
The 90-minute debate, moderated by Mishal Husain, embraced topics including immigration, leadership, terrorism and the economy.
Ms Rudd sought to underline public concerns about Labour’s fiscal reputation by accusing Mr Corbyn of having a “magic money tree” that could provide unlimited public spending.
“It’s very easy to think about how you spend money, it’s much harder to think about how you raise money,” she said, labelling Labour’s policies as “fantasy economics”.
Ms Rudd’s capable performance came just two days after the death of her father, it emerged just minutes after the debate.
Mr Corbyn had earlier enjoyed a reputational coup simply by the act of taking part in the debate — in contrast to his rival.
He accused the Tories of presiding over cuts to disability benefits and planning five more years of public sector cuts. He also attacked Ms Rudd for the government’s plan to means test the winter fuel allowance and adjust the way that the state pension rises each year.
“Have you been to a food bank? 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?” the Labour leader said.
A Corbyn administration would end the public sector pay cap and introduce a higher minimum wage at £10 an hour, he said. “We don’t have to have a spiv economy … while ignoring the cries for social help from so many people.”
The Labour leader also highlighted his plans to end the public sector pay cap and introduce a £10 an hour living wage by 2020.
By reversing recent cuts to corporation tax cuts it would be possible to raise adequate funding for social care, the NHS and schools, he argued.
Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP in Westminster, also said the time had come to end punitive welfare cuts that left people on low incomes with too little money to pay for essentials.
Ms Rudd argued that 3m more people were in work since the Tories were elected in 2010, with 800,000 fewer workless households: “You talk about corporations, I talk about jobs,” she declared.
Her argument was backed by Paul Nuttall, leader of Ukip, who said that increases in corporation tax would lead to job cuts and higher unemployment.
Ms Lucas said she wanted to make the case for freedom of movement across the EU despite Brexit — as well as a second vote on leaving the bloc.
By contrast Mr Nuttall argued that it was time to “get the population under control”.
Questions of leadership were also brought up, with Ms Rudd pointing out that four out of five Labour MPs had signed a motion calling for Mr Corbyn to quit less than a year ago. “Theresa May has the support of her team,” she said.
But Mr Robertson said Mrs May had shown herself as weak in recent days, dubbing her the “not so much the Iron Lady as the U-Turn Queen.”
Ms Rudd said the Tories had cut the deficit, reduced the taxes on the low paid and continued to invest in the NHS. But her call for people to “judge us on our record” was met with laughter by some audience members.
One of the most acute exchanges was over which party could keep the public safe from terrorism, not least after the attack at the Manchester Arena which killed 22 people last week.
Ms Rudd said that as home secretary she saw warrants crossing her desk and spent two hours a day on counter-terrorism issues.
“I am shocked that Jeremy Corbyn in 2011 boasted that he had opposed every piece of anti-terror legislation in 30 years … I find it chilling,” she declared.
But Mr Corbyn pointed out that Mrs May had opposed certain anti-terror laws in 2005, along with David Davis, now Brexit secretary. “There must be judicial oversight of what is done in our name,” the Labour leader said.
Meanwhile Ms Rudd could not resist reprising one of the core Tory arguments from the 2015 election, when the party claimed that a vote for Ed Miliband, then Labour leader, would lead to an unstable coalition with nationalist parties.
“You’ve seen the coalition of chaos in action,” she declared. “A vote for anyone other than Theresa May is a vote for that coalition. Our government needs to be at its strongest to take us through Brexit.”
Mrs May will on Thursday attempt to dispel criticism that her campaign is too negative, declaring that leaving the EU is “a great national mission”. She will say: “The promise of Brexit is great.”
While Mrs May has previously warned of serious economic consequences if Britain fails to secure a good exit deal, today she will say: “If we get Brexit right, we can be a confident, self-governing country once again.”