Party leaders rounded on Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn for shunning the first TV leaders’ debate of the election campaign, though Ukip’s leader, Paul Nuttall, was widely derided by other parties as “the prime minister’s spokesman”.
Despite their absence from the stage at the ITV debate, the Labour and Conservative leaders cast long shadows over the procedure as the main targets of attacks from the Liberal Democrat, Scottish National party, Green and Plaid Cymru leaders.
In her opening statement Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, said the prime minister was “too scared to come here tonight for your U-turns to be highlighted, for your cruel policies to be exposed”.
Subverting May’s Conservative campaign slogan, Wood said it was “weak and unstable leadership” not to appear. “I hope all of us here tonight will show you that real leadership means being willing to defend what you stand for, not hide from it,” she said.
The Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, said May’s absence meant the prime minister saw the election as a foregone conclusion. “The fact that Theresa May isn’t here tells you she is taking you for granted, she thinks she owns this result,” he said. “She thinks she owns our country, owns our future and owns our children’s future.”
Farron called Nuttall “the ambassador for Theresa May” in the opening salvo of the debate, echoing the SNP first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who said the prime minister “did not have the guts to be here tonight but her spokesman in the form of Paul Nuttall is here in her place”.
The Ukip leader, whose party has slipped below the Greens in the national polls, was the main target for attacks from the other four parties, floundered twice when he called Wood “Natalie” by accident. Wood shot back “I’m not Natalie, I’m Leanne” and Nuttall was castigated by the Greens’ Caroline Lucas, for just “picking another woman’s name”.
May confirmed she had no intention of participating in a head-to-head debate with the Labour leader shortly after calling the snap poll. Corbyn said he would not participate in a debate in which the prime minister was not also present, though the pair will both take part separately in a Q&A programme on the BBC later in the campaign.
Nuttall, the only pro-Brexit voice in a debate that opened with a question on how Britain should approach the negotiations, said he was not a representative of the prime minister. “I don’t believe that she will get the best deal possible for Britain, I believe she will begin to backslide,” he said.
“I think she will backslide on fisheries, I think she will sell out fishermen once again like a former Tory prime minister did in Ted Heath. I think there will be some sort of dodgy deal over freedom of movement as well and I think she will capitulate and we will pay a divorce bill.”
Both Farron and Lucas said their parties would fight for a referendum on the final Brexit deal, though Nuttall took his counterattack to Farron, whom he accused of not respecting the referendum result.
“Democracy did not end on 23 June,” said Farron. “None of us know what the outcome is going to be, someone will sign off that deal, either the politicians or the people – I trust the people.”
Lucas said she was disappointed that given the similarities of the parties represented in the debate on the issue of Brexit, little progress had been made on making a progressive alliances to fight in Tory seats. “If opposition parties had worked together they could have opposed Brexit,” she said. Labour and the Lib Dems have rejected any formal agreement with other parties on a national level, though some grassroots deals have been struck.
Sturgeon said she was also saddened by little sign of compromise with remain voters in the prime minister’s plan for the Brexit negotiations. “If you don’t want May to have a free hand, you have to make sure there is strong opposition,” she said.
Farron also turned his fire on Labour, who he said had failed to oppose a hard Brexit and “trooped through the lobbies to back a hard Brexit”. Lucas said the Labour leader had “not only given the Tories a blank cheque but gave them the lift to the bank and helped them cash it”.
Sturgeon said Corbyn’s absence was a sign his party was not providing adequate opposition to the Tories. “We have seen sadly that Labour simply isn’t strong enough to hold the Tories to account, the SNP can provide strong opposition,” she said.
All of the four progressive parties on stage made overtures to voters that they could act as a “strong opposition” to the Conservatives. “We need strong opposition – holding a Tory government to account, keeping them in check and standing up for the values we hold dear: values of social justice, tolerance and community,” Sturgeon said.
Despite last-minute rumours Corbyn was reconsidering his rejection of the invitation, his team confirmed two hours before the event was due to start that he would not be attending.
Corbyn tweeted before the debate, however, challenging the prime minister to face him head-to-head. “Theresa May, why not debate me?” he said. “The public deserves to see a debate between the only two people who could form the next government.”
Neither May nor Corbyn have been “empty-chaired” by the broadcaster, with podiums provided only for the five leaders who appeared, who between them represented just 69 of the 650 MPs in the last parliament.
ITV had said it would not accept representatives, or spokespeople, to appear in the place of the party leaders. Labour and Tory spin doctors were present, however, briefing the media in the so-called “spin room” alongside advisers from the other parties.
The Conservative chair, Patrick McLoughlin, called the debate “a glimpse of the chaos you could get in just three weeks with all the other parties propping up Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister”.
Though viewing figures are not yet available, ITV News staff are said to be concerned about the decision to press ahead with the debate without the two main party leaders and raised doubts about how popular the format would be.
In 2015 BBC1’s party leaders’ debate suffered a 50% ratings drop on its 2010 election programme after David Cameron and Nick Clegg chose not to appear.