A noisy and ill-tempered TV election debate began and ended with Jeremy Corbyn and the UK’s minor parties condemning Theresa May for failing to turn up.
In a seven-way debate, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd stood in for the Prime Minister and was attacked over the Government’s record in office in a 90-minute showdown that was at times a shouting match.
Several times, BBC presenter Mishal Hussein, who was chairing the debate, struggled to be heard above the squabbling among the politicians taking part.
It was the clashes between Mr Corbyn – who only announced hours before the debate that he would take part – and Ms Rudd that were the most heated during the debate, with angry disagreements on the economy, Brexit, immigration and terrorism.
They were joined in the debate in Cambridge by the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron, SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas and the UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.
And although there was no clear winner among the bickering, Ms Rudd’s combative performance will have boosted her chances of becoming the next Tory Chancellor and a future leader of the party.
In her closing remarks at the end of the debate, she said: “You heard the squabbling and discord of disagreement tonight. You saw the coalition of chaos in action.”
It is reported that Ms Rudd took part in the debate just two days after the death of her elderly father on Monday and insisted on taking her place regardless.
After the debate, Labour claimed Mr Corbyn won the debate.
The party said: “He showed himself as a leader who wants to change the country for the better, to make it work for the many not just a few. By contrast, Theresa May’s refusal to take part showed her weakness.”
During the debate Mr Corbyn said there was “nothing remotely strong or stable” about the Tories’ record in office and claimed they would bring in five more years of cuts to public services if re-elected.
But in one of many bitter clashes between the Labour leader and the Home Secretary, a punchy Ms Rudd hit back: “The only question to consider is who should be in No 10 to steer Britain to a brighter future?
“Jeremy Corbyn with his money tree, wish list manifesto and no plan for Brexit or Theresa May with her record of delivery.”
An angry Mr Corbyn was then applauded when he immediately shot back at her: “Have you been to a food bank? Have you seen people sleeping around our stations?
“Have you seen the levels of poverty that exist because of your government’s conscious decisions on benefits?”
Then the Home Secretary faced groans from the audience as she defended the Tory record on welfare, insisting: “We are a party who will always support those in most need.”
And attacking Mr Corbyn again, she said: “I know there is no extra payment you don’t want to add to, no tax you don’t want to rise. We have to stop thinking, as you do, that there is a magic money tree.”
She added: “It’s as though he thinks it’s some sort of game – a game of Monopoly perhaps where you ask the banker for the red money to pay electrics, the green money to buy the railways and the yellow money to buy the gasworks,” she said.
“It’s not like that. This is people’s hard-earned money. We will protect that. We won’t roll the dice.”
Ms Lucas, who performed strongly throughout, said Ms Rudd’s response on disability benefits was “downright insulting”.
Mr Nuttall, answering a question on immigration, said current levels were “unsustainable” and that UKIP would take action to bring the numbers coming into the country under control.
“We would do it by having an Australian-style points system so that if you’ve got the skills this country needs, yes, please come here and work, but beyond that we have to get the population under control,” he said.
Mr Farron accused the Conservatives of running an immigration policy to “appease UKIP”, and drew applause when he highlighted the case of an Asian doctor who was spat at and abused as he returned home after treating the injured in the Manchester bomb attack.
“That is what happens if you demonise immigrants,” he said.
“Do we need, as I’m afraid the Prime Minister has done for the last seven years, to set completely barmy, bogus targets that she fails to meet every year. No we don’t.”
It was Mr Robertson who led the attack on the Conservatives on their manifesto policies on social care and the winter fuel payment, demanding answers on who would lose out from the “dementia tax”.
He challenged her: “I think those people deserve to know by how much they will lose out. The Prime Minister didn’t have the guts to come along this evening to tell us.”
At that point the Home Secretary was laughed at by the audience as she called for people to “judge us on our record” on the public finances.
“We have cut the deficit, we have reduced taxes for the lowest paid and we have made sure that we have continued to invest in the NHS, which is getting another £8bn a year by the end of this parliament,” she said.
But the only way to have the money to invest was through having a strong economy “which does sometimes mean making difficult choices, those sorts of choices no other party here is prepared to face up to”.
Ms Rudd said the plans would mean winter fuel payments will not be paid to millionaires but would not give specific figures.
She added: “We will always look after pensioners, ensuring they have dignity and security in retirement.”
Mr Corbyn was forced to defend his speech last Friday linking UK foreign policy to terrorism at home, claiming British military intervention in countries such as Libya had left “ungoverned spaces” which the extremists had been able to exploit to mount attacks.
“If you intervene somewhere, the consequences go on for a very long time,” he said.
“It would be extremely unwise for any government anywhere in the world to ignore what is happening in Libya, where large areas are left ungoverned and very dangerous forces are arising there.”
But the Home Secretary hit back: “I am shocked that Jeremy Corbyn just in 2011 boasted that he had opposed every piece of anti-terror legislation in his 30 years in office. I really think he must be held accountable for that because I find it chilling.”
Mr Corbyn responded that Mrs May and other senior Conservatives had voted against anti-terror laws in 2005.
“My opposition to anti-terror legislation isn’t opposition to protecting us from terrorism. It is simply saying there must be judicial oversight over what is done in our name,” he said.
As the debate drew to a close, Mr Nuttall concluded by boasting: “We have been proven right on Brexit, proved right on immigration, proved right on grammar schools, proved right on protecting our police and security services.”
Ms Lucas, in her closing remarks, said Britain was at a crossroads between tolerance and openness or turning inwards towards “isolation and hate”.
But the most powerful finale came from Mr Farron, who won loud applause when he said: “You’re not worth Theresa May’s time. Don’t give her yours.”