Theresa May has rejected accusations that she went back on her word by going to the polls, telling voters: “I had the balls to call an election”.
In a two-part BBC Question Time broadcast last night the Prime Minister defended her decision to call a vote and denied that her campaign was an exercise in hiding from the electorate. Mrs May was confronted by voters on issues of trust and cuts to welfare under the Conservatives, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was pressed over his refusal to say if he would use the UK’s nuclear weapons, even in retaliation to an attack.
In a fractious exchange on the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, the Labour leader was heckled for saying: “People tell me that the most effective use of it is not to use it because it’s there.”
Mr Corbyn faced shouts of “what would you do” when he refused to say whether he would authorise a retaliatory strike if the UK had already come under nuclear attack.
One audience member demanded: “Would you use it as second use or would you allow North Korea, or some idiot in Iran to bomb us and then say oh we’d better start talking.”
Mr Corbyn replied: “Of course not, of course I would not do that.”
Defending her decision to call an early election, the Prime Minister said she was willing to go back on her promise “because this is a really important moment for our country. We need to get it right.”
After being criticised for failing to take part in a live TV debate with other party leaders, Mrs May said: “I don’t think seven politicians arguing amongst themselves is that interesting or that revealing.”
Faced with narrowing polls that put at risk her goal of securing a bigger majority to ensure a smooth Brexit process, Mrs May said she didn’t regret her decision to go to the polls.
But she was accused by one audience member having “called an election for the good of the Conservative Party, and it’s going to backfire on you”.
The Prime Minister replied: “No it’s not, sir. It would have been the easiest thing in the world, having become Prime Minister after the referendum when David Cameron resigned, to say the next election isn’t until 2020... I could have stayed on and kept doing that job. I had the balls to call an election.”
She warned of the risk of voters backing Labour and allowing Mr Corbyn to form a minority government with the support of the SNP.
“We have a situation where if Jeremy Corbyn was to get into number 10, he’d be being propped up by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists,” she said.
“You’d have Diane Abbott who can’t add up sitting around the cabinet table, John McDonnell who’s a Marxist, Nicola Sturgeon who wants to break our country up, and Tim Farron who wants to take us back into the EU, the direct opposite of what the people want.”
Mrs May refused to give a figure for how much she would be willing to pay the EU in Brexit ‘divorce’ settlement, and she was also challenged over a U-turn on controversial social care plans for England, which saw an as-yet unknown cap added to elderly care costs.
Asked why voters should trust despite failing to give detailed costings for the plans, the Prime Minister said: “What our manifesto had done is be open with people about the great challenges that we believe this country faces.
“We’ve been open about that, and I’ve also been open that there will be some hard choices to be made in addressing those various challenges.”
Mrs May was also confronted by two voters who had been called to work capability assessments over mental health conditions, one of whom said she had been waiting almost two years for NHS counselling.
The Prime Minister promised further investment and a new Mental Health Act to end workplace discrimination.
But she told a nurse who said her salary hasn’t changed since 2009: “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.”
In another key exchange, Mrs May said she didn’t know whether North Korea receives funding from the UK’s foreign aid budget.
Mr Corbyn said Labour was “not looking to do deals with anybody” when asked if he would seek the support of the SNP.
“I want to form a Labour government with a majority to carry out this amazing programme which can give so much hope and opportunity for so many people. So no deals.”
He was challenged on the Labour Party’s response to antisemitism, saying an investigation into Ken Livingston, suspended over comments about the Holocaust, “may or may not continue”.