Jeremy Corbyn looked to exploit the Prime Minister’s absence from the live BBC programme, reversing a decision not to attend unless she did at noon yesterday.
The SNP was represented at last night’s debate in Cambridge by the party’s deputy and Westminster leader Angus Robertson, who said “the Prime Minister didn’t have the guts to come along” and defend proposed cuts to pensioner benefits.
Amber Rudd, who stood in for the Conservative Party, defended the Prime Minister’s decision, claiming she was staying above the “squabbling” of a possible “Coalition of Chaos”. But with the Conservative poll lead shrinking, and one analysis suggesting the election could produce a hung parliament, the Home Secretary shifted away from the party’s presidential campaign style, saying: “Part of being a good leader is having a good, strong team around you.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron opened with a broadside at the Prime Minister, asking viewers: “Where do you think Theresa May is tonight? Take a look out the window, she might be out there, sizing up your house to pay for your social care.
“And why do you think she called this election? She wants five years as prime minister, and she thinks you’ll give it to her, no questions asked – literally.”
And he ended by asking viewers to change the channel before Ms Rudd could begin her closing remarks.
“How dare you call a general election then run away from the debate?” Mr Farron said. “The Prime Minister is not here tonight. She cannot be bothered. So why should you?”
Mr Corbyn was more restrained towards the absent Prime Minister, but began by saying simply: “I am here.”
He claimed a Conservative victory would saddle young people with debt, reduce investment in public services and cut support for the elderly, and borrowing the central theme of Mrs May’s campaign, added: “None of that is remotely strong or stable.”
Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas said: “I think the first rule of leadership is to show up. You don’t call a general election and say it is the most important election in your lifetime, and then not even be bothered to come and debate the issues at stake.”
And Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said of the Prime Minister: “She won’t turn up to these debates because her campaign of soundbites is falling apart.”
The Labour leader’s decision to take part seemed to have been vindicated, although he was accused by Ukip leader Paul Nuttall of having “invited Hamas to the House of Commons and called them your friends”.
Ms Rudd accused opposition parties of bearing “bluff, bravado and tempting, shiny election promises”, but not having the strength to make tough choices needed to balance the books and secure a Brexit agreement.
Singling out Mr Robertson over the SNP’s calls for another independence referendum, she said: “I know that for Angus, there’s no referendum result he will accept, every one seems to be wrong to him.”
But the Home Secretary’s appeal to “judge us on our record” when asked for costings of key policies drew laughter from the studio audience.
Mr Corbyn also directed fire at the SNP’s record in government, heckling Mr Robertson: “It’s a shame you don’t use your powers to stop austerity in Scotland”.
Flashpoints focused on debates over public spending and security, with the Labour leader demanding of Ms Rudd in an exchange on welfare: “Have you been to a food bank? Have you seen people sleeping around our stations?”
She accused Mr Corbyn of resorting to a “magic money tree” and told him: “Jeremy, I know there is no extra payment you don’t want to add to, no tax you don’t want to raise, but the fact is we have to concentrate our resources on the people who need it most.”
Later, taking on Labour’s economic policy, including plans to nationalise key industries: “He thinks its some kind of game, a game of Monopoly perhaps, where you ask the banker for the red money to pay for the electrics, the green money to buy the railways, and the yellow money to buy the gasworks.”
On security, Mr Robertson accused Ukip of “going straight for the Muslims” in the wake of the Manchester bombing.