LONDON • Mrs Theresa May's decision to skip a televised election debate threatened to rebound on her as other party leaders lambasted her absence, saying it proved she was unfit to lead Britain.
The Prime Minister's place at the event was taken by one of the most senior ministers in her Conservative government, Home Secretary Amber Rudd. The BBC debate was held in the university city of Cambridge on Wednesday night.
Ms Rudd went through with the appearance though her father died earlier this week, said two Tory officials who asked not to be named as the information was not public.
"The Prime Minister is not here tonight. She can't be bothered," Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron told viewers at the end of the session.
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"You're not worth Theresa May's time. Don't give her yours."
Mrs May decided to stick to her decision not to take part, even though Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced earlier on Wednesday that he would be there.
Over the week, Mrs May saw her previous lead of 20 percentage points over Labour dwindle to 3 points, according to a YouGov poll for the Times newspaper published on Wednesday evening.
NOT WORTH THE VOTERS' TIME
You're not worth Theresa May's time. Don't give her yours.
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS LEADER TIM FARRON.
STANDING UP FOR THE TORIES
Theresa May may not be here, but I hope to make a good fist of setting out Tory policy.
HOME SECRETARY AMBER RUDD.
"Theresa May called this election because she is taking you for granted," Ms Leanne Wood, who heads Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said in her opening statement.
"She won't turn up to these debates because her campaign of sound bites is falling apart."
Others at the debate soon joined in, with the Scottish National Party's deputy leader, Mr Angus Robertson, noting that Mrs May was "not so much the Iron Lady as the U-turn Queen".
Ms Rudd herself sometimes gave the impression of wishing to be somewhere else.
"Thank you, Tim, for that pass," she told Mr Farron after his attack on her absent boss. At another point, she turned to Mr Robertson.
"Don't give up on me yet, Angus," she said. "Theresa May may not be here, but I hope to make a good fist of setting out Tory policy."
Mrs May's absence was mocked even by House Of Cards, a Netflix series about a fictional United States president. In a tweet addressed to the Prime Minister, it said: "They respect you more when you show strength. Or show up."
Mr Corbyn himself did not directly attack Mrs May for her absence, choosing instead to address criticism of his own leadership style. That, he said, was about being able to listen, and not being "high and mighty".
Mrs May was expected to try to counter the fallout from her no-show with a speech scheduled to be given in north-eastern England yesterday. She would try to refocus her campaign on Brexit, describing her "great national mission" to make Britain more prosperous.
"If we get Brexit right, we can be a confident, self-governing country once again," she would say, according to extracts released by her office. "A country that takes the decisions that matter to Britain here in Britain."