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UK poll: When absent May in TV debate had more impact

There were leaders of seven parties at the debate, but by keeping away, the prime minister became the most talked about leader.

world Updated: Jun 01, 2017 17:07 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Interior Minister Amber Rudd, UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson and moderator Mishal Husain attend the BBC's live televised general election debate in Cambridge, on Wednesday.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Interior Minister Amber Rudd, UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson and moderator Mishal Husain attend the BBC's live televised general election debate in Cambridge, on Wednesday.(REUTERS)

The primacy of television in political communication has long been established, but perhaps for the first time a prime minister had more impact – good or bad, depending on which part of the fence you are – by being absent during a live debate.

Prime Minister Theresa May had decided not to debate Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on television. She kept to her word, but the latter won many brownie points by deciding to appear at the debate in Cambridge on Wednesday night, and by all accounts, added inches ahead of the June 8 poll.

There were leaders of seven parties at the debate, but by keeping away May became the most talked about leader: most ridiculed her, leaving only Home secretary Amber Rudd – her replacement – to put up a weak defence to justify her absence.

May’s absence became headline news, rather than any policy points.

In contrast, Corbyn, who has been dogged by claims that he is not fit for politics in the age of television, won more supporters by reasoned arguments and some passionate ripostes to Rudd.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrats leader, had the most biting words in his opening statement: “Where do you think Theresa May is tonight? Take a look out your 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”.

His closing statement: “Now Amber Rudd is up next. She’s not the prime minister. The prime minister is not here tonight. She can’t be bothered. So why should you? In fact, Bake Off is on BBC 2 next. Why not make yourself a brew. You’re not worth Theresa May’s time. Don’t give her yours”.

Rudd’s appeal to the audience to judge her government on its record drew laughter, while Green Party leader Caroline Lucas and Scottish National Party leader landed several blows on Rudd, including the absence of May who had called the mid-term election but would not appear at the debate.

As May’s absence became the main story, foreign secretary Boris Johnson insisted on Thursday that BBC had the “most left-wing audience” it had for any such event. BBC denied the allegation, saying the audience was equally divided among parties and those who had to remain and leave the European Union.