General election: May falters during challenge over record on public services
Theresa May came under sustained pressure over the Conservative party’s record on public sector pay, mental health services and social care in a combative election edition of BBC1’s Question Time broadcast less than a week before polling day.
The prime minister faced a string of awkward questions from members of the public, including a challenge from a nurse Victoria Davey who left May faltering after confronting her over the 1% pay increase received by NHS staff.
May said she recognised the hard work people did in the health service but said her party had taken the difficult decision of enforcing pay restraint. “I’m being honest with you saying we will put more money in but there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake to get everything we want,” she said.
The prime minister claimed wages in the NHS had increased, to which a man in the audience shouted that there had been a real terms salary drop of 14% since 2010, adding: “So don’t tell us we’re getting a pay rise.”
One woman from the audience became emotional as she described emerging from a fitness for work test in tears after being asked about her suicide attempts. “I’m not going to make any excuses for the experience you’ve had,” said the prime minister.
Under pressure after refusing to turn up for a TV debate earlier in the week, May was animated at first and rejected an accusation that she had performed a U-turn by calling a snap general election. “No it’s not, sir…I had the balls to call an election,” she said.
Appearing straight after May on the programme, Jeremy Corbyn also faced hostile questioning, coming under pressure over defence and security.
Pressed over his willingness to push the nuclear button in the face of imminent threat, the Labour leader said: “I think the idea of anyone ever using a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world is utterly appalling and terrible. It would result in the destruction of lives and community and environment of millions of people. I would be actively engaged to ensure that danger didn’t come about.”
Asked again if there were any circumstances in which he would use such a weapon, Corbyn said his party had committed to renew Trident. “I would view the idea of using a nuclear weapon as something resulting in a failure of the whole world’s diplomatic system,” he said. “There has to be no first use. There has to be a process of engagement to bring about ultimately global nuclear disarmament … You cannot countenance a world in which we could all be destroyed by nuclear war.”
The comments led to a heated exchange with an exasperated member of the audience who asked if Corbyn would not even fire back if attacked. “I would say no first use of the weapon. That has to be the basis of what we do.”
He then argued: “We’ve only got one planet, let’s get together when we live on it and above all let’s not destroy it … The most effective use of it is not to use it because it is there.”
Corbyn did receive support from one woman in the audience who said she could not understand why others wanted to kill millions of people by discharging a nuclear weapon.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said later: “There is no point in having a nuclear weapon unless you are willing in principle to deploy it. I’m afraid there is a lesson here about Jeremy Corbyn’s psychology and his politics and his naivety, with which he approaches not just the logic of the nuclear deterrent but also the Brexit negotiations.”
Corbyn began his appearance, and received cheers, when he said that he would have preferred to be debating the prime minister head-to-head. He challenged May to spell out the impact of her “dementia tax” in the final days of the election, saying it was “staggering” that pensioners would not be told the level of a promised cap on social care costs.
In her session, May was asked why she was not able to provide details of the maximum amount of money people would have to spend on social care, which was only promised after days of backlash against the policy.
May defended her failure to set out additional details, even though the policy is blamed for reducing the Conservative’s lead in the polls in the past fortnight. “We’re talking about two different things. On the floor, it’s important people have a protection of their savings, which is greater than it is today. That’s why we’ve set it at £100,000. But on the cap, I think it’s right we have that consultation, with individuals, with organisations that deal with these issues, with charities to make sure we get that at the right level,” she said.
May focused on Brexit and attacks on Labour over the question of leadership – two subjects her campaign is planning to concentrate on in the final few days of the campaign.
“I called a general election because I believe the British people have a right to vote and say who they want to see leading them through the Brexit process,” she said. “And I believe they should have a prime minister with a resolute determination to carry out their will.”
On Friday, May attempted to court business with a Financial Times interview in which she vowed to consult companies during Brexit negotiations. She promised she would “work with business and identify with them what their main concerns are” when it comes to designing a new immigration system, and stressed that there would be an “implementation phase”.
On the BBC1 programme, she hit out at Corbyn with her election mantra that he could only get into Downing Street “propped up by the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists”, adding: “You’d have Diane Abbott, who can’t add up around the cabinet table, John McDonnell who is a Marxist, Nicola Sturgeon who wants to break our country up and Tim Farron who wants to take us back into the EU.”
The audience challenged Corbyn on Labour’s policies on a higher minimum wage, corporation tax rises and zero-hour contracts, with one man claiming the agenda would hurt business.
The Labour leader responded by saying there would be support for small firms to cope with the increase in the wages that employees would be entitled to. “There are many big companies that could well afford to pay it and shouldn’t be just paying the minimum wage,” he said.
Small companies could “have problems, we fully recognise that”, Corbyn added, but said a Labour government would “work with them, either to give them tax relief or support in order to make sure the real living wage was paid but they didn’t close down as a result”.
Asked by student Edward Robbins about the zero-hours contracts that offer “casual, flexible work”, Corbyn said: “I’m not going to stop you working, it’s OK.”
Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s election coordinator said: “It’s very regrettable the prime minister wouldn’t debate with Jeremy and, after tonight, I can see why. She has no answers to the issues that really concern people on the doorstep, the NHS and cuts facing our schools, and far from appearing strong and stable, she was definitely on the back foot answering most of the questions pitched to her.”