British Prime Minister Theresa May was grilled by voters in a live television programme on Friday, just six days before a surprise general election she called.
After avoiding a TV debate with other leaders earlier this week, the Conservative prime minister joined her main opponent, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, in taking questions in front of a studio audience – but consecutively, rather than side by side.
May was accused of “broken promises” for going for an early election on June 8 after she had repeatedly said she would not, and for a U-turn on a key manifesto pledge on elderly social care.
“I could have stayed on doing that job for another couple of years and not called an election. I had the balls to call an election,” May told the studio audience of BBC’s Question Time programme in York, northern England,
She called the election three years early, warning that opposition parties threatened to derail her plans to take Britain out of the European Union following a referendum vote last year.
However, she has been accused of seeking to take advantage of her party’s 20-point poll lead over the main opposition Labour Party.
Since then, the gap appears to have shrunk significantly – down to just five percentage points compared to 15 just over two weeks ago, according to a survey from Ipsos MORI.
May repeated her mantra that “the only poll that matters is the one that takes place on polling day”.
She added: “My party is the only party that is going to respect the will of the British people, get on with the job and deliver a successful Brexit.”
May became prime minister without winning an election in July last year following the resignation of David Cameron after Britons went against his advice and voted to leave the EU. She had also backed the Remain camp in the June 23 referendum.
Focus on climate, cuts
In the TV event, May was also accused of failing to stand up to the US President Donald Trump over his country’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
The prime minister did not sign a joint statement by the leaders of Germany, France and Italy, who said they regretted Trump’s decision and insisted that the accord cannot be renegotiated.
May said she spoke to Trump by phone “and told him that the UK believes in the Paris agreement and that we didn’t want the United States to leave the Paris agreement”.
May’s Conservatives have been in power since 2010, and the prime minister faced tough questions about her government’s cuts to welfare and health services.
She said the government had “had to take some hard choices across the public sector” to curb spending and reduce the country’s deficit.
In a difficult moment, she was challenged by a woman who struggled to hold back tears as she described waiting for more than a year for counselling on the state-run National Health Service.
“I’m not going to make any excuses for the experience you had,” May said.
Economy, nuclear arms
Afterwards, Corbyn faced the same audience and his own tough questions over his party’s manifesto of spending promises, which one audience member called a “letter to Santa Claus”.
He was also criticised on his record on defence.
The leftist leader’s lifelong opposition to nuclear weapons has drawn severe criticism from within his own party, and he was heckled on Friday for refusing to say whether he would launch a retaliatory strike if Britain were attacked.
“If we did use it, millions are going to die. You have to think these things through. I will decide on the circumstances at the time,” Corbyn said.
He said it was a “shame” that May refused to debate head-to-head with him before the election, and accused May of failing to stand up to the US over its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.