Despite her lead in the polls shrinking rapidly, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to participate in a live TV leaders debate Wednesday evening ahead of the U.K. general election. Despite her absence, or perhaps because of it, May ended up being one of the main topics of conversation. Other party leaders slammed the prime minister’s decision to avoid the debate and send Home Secretary Amber Rudd in her place — despite the death of the Rudd’s father Monday.
May’s absence was labeled the “shadow that hangs over the election” by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who criticized the prime minister for missing the BBC debate in Cambridge: “Good leaders don’t run away from a debate. Theresa May should undoubtedly be here.”
Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, said: “The first rule of leadership is to show up,” adding: “You don’t call a general election and say it’s the most important election in her lifetime and then not even be bothered to come and debate the issues at stake.”
May’s absence might not have been so glaring but for a last minute decision by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to attend the debate, having previously said he would also miss the encounter. Ahead of the event, Corbyn said May’s failure to attend would be seen as a sign of weakness by the Conservative leader.
A Labour source told the Press Association that her failure to show up spoke for itself, adding: “If she won’t debate, how can she negotiate?” Many social media users mocked May’s absence using the #WheresTheresaMay hashtag.
In an attempt to counter the criticism of his leader, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson slammed the BBC Thursday for its audience selection at the debate, calling it “the most leftwing audience I’ve ever seen” — a claim also made on the front page of Thursday’s Daily Mail. Andrew Hawkins, the founder of the polling company that organized the recruitment of audience members, defended its process, calling it the “most complex” he had ever seen.
May is coming under increasing pressure as a once yawning gap between the Conservatives and Labour whittled down to just 3 percentage points in an opinion poll published by the Times Thursday. Further worry will be added by figures released Thursday which show the U.K. is currently the worst-performing advanced economy in the world, with growth slumping to just 0.2 percent in the first three months of the year.
So why didn’t the ruling leader of the Conservative Party take part in the debate on Wednesday? Here are the four reasons May gave Wednesday while taking questions from journalists at a campaign event in Bath:
- She was thinking about Brexit negotiations: May said that Corbyn was paying more attention to appearing on TV than he was to serious matters. “I think he ought to be paying a little more attention to thinking about Brexit negotiations. That’s what I’m doing, to make sure we get the best possible deal for Britain.”
- She debates Corbyn all the time anyway: May has repeatedly said that since she became leader of the Conservatives in July 2016, she has “directly, week in, week out” debated Corbyn during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, so there’s no need to debate him again before the election.
- She’s more interested in meeting the public: May says that the election is about meeting members of the public face-to-face, and that she would prefer to do that than attend debates. “That’s what I enjoy doing during the campaigns. And I think that’s really important. That is why I’ve been doing that up and down the country.”
- Debates are a bit pointless: Finally, May believes that debates simply boil down to petty fighting between political leaders, something she isn’t interested in getting involved in. “I think debates where the politicians are squabbling among themselves doesn’t do anything for the process of electioneering.” This contradicts the conclusion of an academic report into TV debates in 2015.