Labour Party's Corbyn says he will take part in live TV debate, taunts British PM May to face him

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arriving at Sky studios on May 29, 2017.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arriving at Sky studios on May 29, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP, Bloomberg) - British Prime Minister Theresa May came under pressure to join a live television election debate Tuesday after opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn announced a last-minute decision to attend.

May had ruled out any head-to-head debate with other party leaders ahead of the June 8 vote, and is due to send her interior minister to the seven-way hustings on the BBC on Wednesday (May 31) evening.

In response, Labour leader Corbyn had said he too would not attend – only to announce just hours before the event that he would take part after all.

“It’s very odd that we have an election campaign where we go out and talk to people all the time and the prime minister seems to have difficulties in meeting anyone or having a debate,” Corbyn told a rally in Reading, west of London.

“There is a debate in Cambridge tonight. I don’t know what she is doing this evening, but it’s not far from London."

“I invite her to go to Cambridge and debate her policies, debate their record, debate their plans, debate their proposals and let the public make up their mind.”

Labour is gaining ground on May’s Conservatives in opinion polls, and Corbyn’s team has been buoyed by a better-than-expected performance in a TV grilling on Monday (May 29) night.

The leaders of the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party, the Greens and Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, and the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, are also taking part in the debate in Cambridge, eastern England.

Corbyn is reveling in his new spot in the limelight: “Everywhere I go all over the country the rallies get bigger, the crowds get bigger, the determination gets bigger,” he told the campaign rally in Reading, southern England. “That gives us the chance to do something very special on June 8.”

Shortly after committing to take part in the debate, Corbyn taunted May in a tweet, saying "@theresa_may I'm waiting."

Corbyn is dominating the British election campaign - for good and bad - with just a week left before voters choose a government to negotiate Brexit.

A dramatic 24 hours culminated in a poll suggesting the election could produce no clear winner, pushing sterling lower. On Tuesday (May 30), Mr Corbyn forgot the cost of a key childcare policy during a live radio interview, a blunder on a potentially popular measure that led the BBC's influential evening news. May went on the attack with sharply personal criticism.

Yet, despite his difficulties, the Labour leader appeared relaxed and good humoured later, joking on television about his passion for drain covers and gardening, as he received another boost from pollsters.

"Did I ever set out in life to become prime minister? No," Mr Corbyn told BBC television's The One Show, a popular evening programme that typically attracts five million viewers. "I'm giving it everything I can to win."

The pound fell as much as 0.6 per cent against the dollar and traded 0.5 per cent lower at US$1.2799 at 7.35am in London.

Pollsters in Britain have been battered by some high-profile misses, most recently in the Brexit referendum, and projections of the election result have swung around over recent weeks.

Some polls earlier in the month showed Mrs May's Conservatives leading by 20 percentage points or more, while two surveys on Tuesday also gave Labour supporters reason to hope.

A poll by ICM for The Guardian showed the Conservative lead over Labour falling to 12 points, from 22 points three weeks previously.

Most striking, though, was an estimate of the likely result of the election in Wednesday's edition of The Times of London, compiled by YouGov, with an innovative analysis of 50,000 interviews of 7,000 people over seven days.

This projection suggested Mrs May would lose 20 seats and be stripped of her overall majority in Parliament, with just 310 lawmakers in a hung Parliament, down from 330 before she called the election. Labour would gain 28 seats and finish with 257 members of Parliament, under the YouGov model.

The YouGov result allows for a wide margin of error and the pollster acknowledged that its predictions would be controversial, even though the model correctly predicted Brexit. A so-called hung Parliament, with no single party in overall majority control, would be hugely damaging for Mrs May and would seriously undermine her ability to rule.

Mrs May called the snap election last month, with surveys suggesting she was on track for a landslide. She told voters she wanted a new mandate to strengthen her position ahead of Brexit negotiations.

Wednesday's newspapers may also pose a challenge for Labour and subject Mr Corbyn to fresh scrutiny over immigration.

The Telegraph and The Daily Mail reported that Labour has a secret plan to let thousands of unskilled migrant workers into Britain after the country leaves the European Union. A visa scheme would allow migrants to compete with British workers for jobs on farms and in factories, the two papers report.

On Tuesday, Mrs May sought to refocus attention on her rival's character, warning that he would not be prepared to take on the EU across the negotiating table.

At a campaign event in Wolverhampton, England, the Premier said Mr Corbyn would go "alone and naked" into talks starting next month.

"I know that's an image that doesn't bear thinking about, but actually this is very serious," Mrs May said. "With the Brexit negotiations due to begin only 11 days after polling day, he is not prepared."

Mrs May is trying to turn the campaign to areas such as security and Brexit where analysts say she is stronger. But Mr Corbyn's anti-austerity message, coupled with the Premier's own U-turn last week on how to fund social care, has chiselled away at her poll lead.