UK general election debate: May says she's willing to leave the EU without a deal as Corbyn is accused of supporting the IRA

  • We’re providing live coverage of the leaders’ debate tonight. Refresh this page for updates or click here.
  • Conservative leader Theresa May says “If it takes being a difficult woman then that is what I will be.”
  • May says she is prepared to walk away from the Article 50 Brexit talks with no deal.
  • On education, May says: “Nobody can guarantee a real per pupil funding increase.”
  • Corbyn accused of supporting the IRA.
  • The Labour leader declines to commit to an immigration target.
  • And he won’t abolish the monarchy.
  • Both candidates took questions from an audience first before a more detailed grilling from host Jeremy Paxman.

And we’re done! That flew by!

There was no clear “winner” but given that May went into the debate with a poll lead of somewhere around 10 points and didn’t implode, then she will probably emerge from this ahead.

May improved as she went along. She recovered from being briefly heckled by an audience member. Interestingly, she improved as she became more honest — more honest about changing her mind over Brexit and more honest about being prepared to walk away from the EU with no deal. Funny how audiences appreciate honesty over talking points and spin!

Corbyn was fairly deft in handling questions about some of his more extreme historic views, such as his past support for the IRA and his association with Hamas. He looked like a politician who knew what he was talking about — which is an improvement over the way he is normally portrayed in the press.

So Labour will take away some positives from this too.

Interestingly, much of Paxman’s questions for Corbyn were about his past beliefs and positions, leaving less time for his plans for the future. Paxman’s focus with May was on her more recent U-turns. That allowed her to talk about her current policies. Overall, Paxman’s entire strategy was one long attempt to force one of them into a gaff — and it didn’t work.

Here was our live coverage of the debate as it happened, in reverse chronological order:

Paxman, questioning May: How much are you prepared to pay to get a Brexit deal? £100 billion?

“We will look for a fair settlement for our rights and obligations. … What is going to be the right deal for us… which will stop us paying huge sums every single year.” … “No deal is better than a bad deal.”

Another line that goes down well, and she repeats it.

Paxman bears down on this.

“I’m not prepared to sign up for a bad deal” … she admits she will walk away with no deal. That’s interesting.

How much damage will restricting immigration do to the economy?

“Sometimes what we’ve seen is people being brought in from overseas because we haven’t done sufficient with our own people.”

Paxman is trying to suggest she changes her mind on everything. Now we’re onto the National Insurance Contribution U-turn, and her repeated promise not to call the election she has just called.

“I said there wouldn’t be a general election and after I became prime minister, the most important thing was …. it became clear [other parties wanted to frustrate Brexit] … other parties want to frustrate those negotiations … the desire of the other parties to frustrate the will of the people.”

She gets applause for that. People believe she is determined to deliver Brexit whether she likes it or not. A strong moment.

The social care / dementia tax cap:

She rejected the Dilnot proposal because it was going to come out of general taxation and didn’t protect pensioners on modest incomes.

What will the cap be?

“It’s not about not knowing, it’s about thinking what the right approach is to get to that figure.” The audience laughs again. May’s inability to answer this question is her weakest part.

Paxman asks her what convinced her Brexit was bad for Britain.

“I’m delivering what I believe the British people want their government to deliver … it’s an issue about trusting politicians.” She admits campaigning for remain but now insists the government should deliver. The audience likes it. Paxman is trying to get her to admit she doesn’t believe in Brexit but she won’t have it. “I genuinely think if we get Brexit right we can make a real success of the opportunities that open up for us.”

As we head into another break … May has done OK but not great. She has stuck to her script but her script was light on facts and specifics. Her tactic here seems to be “take no risks.”

The audience was not as warm to her as you might imagine. All May has to do is not implode, and she did that.

Audience member: Does being a “bloody difficult woman” help or hurt on domestic issues?

“That’s what drives me – to do what is right for our country. Sometimes you have to be difficult to do that.”

“If it takes being a difficult woman then that is what I will be.”

She’s owning it!

NHS funding:

“We are increasing the funding into the health service and will increase the funding into the future.” May’s tactic is pretty clear here: She is avoiding any specific numbers of any kind. It’s all principles and values. She hasn’t said “strong and stable” yet though!

The audience member says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”


May successfully avoids the question about whether Brexit would generate £350 million per week for the NHS.

Education cuts: Will May change her plans?

“We will put further record levels of funding into schools” but we want to look at whether the funding is fair from district to district, May says.

She talks about bringing universities into schools. And then gets very vague, very quickly: “It’s down to your talents and hard work how far you go and not who your parents are.”

When pressed she said: “Nobody can guarantee a real per pupil funding increase.”

The audience laughs at that — they don’t believe her. It’s a rough moment.

A senior citizen asks about the “dementia tax” in which older people might be required to sell their houses to pay for care. “Why should we, in my generation, vote for you?”

“I want to take those risks away … it’s about ensuring that nobody is going to have to sell their house to pay for care in their lifetime. … we put an absolute cap on the level of money that people have to pay.”

“There will be a cap, yes.”

“What we will do is not just put a figure on it, we’ll publish a green paper a consultation document …” She declines to give a specific number for the cap on care payments.

May is staying away from specifics on all questions so far.

First audience question for the PM: A police officer asks for specific numbers on the recruitment of new police officers, and budgeting.

May: She makes all the right noises but doesn’t answer the question. She gives no numbers. She admits that police numbers are down 20,000, to 124,000. “What we need to do in policing terms is ensure it’s not just about the numbers of police but what the police are able to do.” She argues that crime is changing and — without actually saying it — that means we need fewer cops.

Snap verdict: Corbyn did OK. He stuck to his guns, no major mistakes. Now it’s time for Theresa May.

Paxman asks Corbyn: Why did you call Hamas our “friends”?

Corbyn: “It was inclusive language at a meeting at which I was promoting the idea of a two-state solution. … I do not agree with them, I do not support them.”

“At the end of the day there has to be a process in which people talk to each other. You know that.”

It’s another weak spot for Corbyn — his history of fellow-travelling with Arab terrorists. But Corbyn makes a good fist of it — this is how you get peace, he says.

And the section ends!

The Falklands. Paxman asks Corbyn about his old position on the islands, which was against the war.

“I wanted a UN brokered plan.”

“There should have been an opportunity to prevent that war happening by the UN.”

He favours “a negotiated solution to that thru the United Nations.” That is as far as he will go.

This is weak stuff — Corbyn didn’t actually say he would defend the Falklands and Paxman failed to get him to be specific about it.

Paxman: “Would you leave Europe without a deal?”

Corbyn: “We will get a deal.” Paxman fails to get Corbyn to name the price he would be willing for the UK to pay to get a favourable Brexit deal. Paxman really badgers him — but Corbyn holds firm. It’s a reasonable performance as there is no “price” for leaving and the UK is miles away from that stage of the negotiation anyway.

Paxman asks if he wants to abolish the monarchy. It’s not in the manifesto, Paxman says, even though Corbyn has favoured abolition in the past.

“Look, there is nothing in there because we are not going to do it!” Corbyn gets a big laugh.

Should MI5 be disbanded? Paxman is going through all of Corbyn’s old positions and beliefs

Corbyn is having none of it. He says we should look at the needs of the country now.

Paxman accuses Corbyn of wanting to nationalise the banks.

Corbyn won’t agree. He dances around a bit and points out that several UK banks were partially nationalised. He won’t admit that his past position was to favour nationalisation. “I am not a dictator who writes things to tell people what to do.”

And we’re back. Paxman wants to talk about the Manifesto.

Paxman wants to know why Corbyn’s anti-nuclear position did not make it into the manifesto. “What I want to see is a nuclear free world.” Corbyn says the Labour party conference took the decision. Paxman is trying to get him to say it’s not morally right but Corbyn doesn’t budge.

After only 20 mins … we’re on a break! Paxman v Corbyn is next!

Corbyn has done well so far. No major screwups. He failed to put a number on immigration and declined to commit to anything there — that was possibly his weakest moment. And although he handled the question about the IRA well, the moment will remind his critics of his past connections to the Irish terrorist group.

The questions are coming thick and fast — there is no lingering.

Next up: Paxman!

Last audience question: Will Corbyn commit to using the UK’s nuclear threat if need be?

“I want to live in a world free of the danger of nuclear holocaust.” He says he is happy to write the letter to British submarine commanders instructing them on how to respond to a nuclear attack. He repeats hsi longheld peace positions. Nothing new here.

Question: Why has Labour made it impossible for business owners to vote Labour?

“Are you happy that so many of our children with super size classes? …a million waiting for social care? You don’t address these problems by ignoring them.”

“We’re all better off when everybody is better off.”

“I work with small businesses, I talk to them… they are often exploited by much bigger businesses who delay their payments.”

Corbyn is clearly more comfortable talking about social issues than business issues. He likes talking about small business but doesn’t really mention large businesses — one of his weakest areas.

Why should Remain voters back Labour?

Corbyn says: “You have to work together to achieve things” … “we won’t threaten Europe with turning this country into a corporate tax haven” … “good relations with our neighbours.”

Immigration and Brexit: Why won’t you give a number on immigration the way the Conservatives have?

On Brexit: “It has happened and we accept it.”

“We have to have managed migration.”

“We won’t allow companies to bring in large numbers of low paid workers” he says, in order to do “disgraceful undercutting” of pay. He declines to give a number. “It certainly wouldn’t go up … but I don’t want to be held to this. … We have a serious skills shortage in the country.”

An audience member asks Corbyn about his alleged historic support for the IRA:

He replies he made those connections as part of an attempt to create the Good Friday peace agreement.

“You have openly supported the IRA in the past,” the audience member says.

Corbyn says he only attended meetings to further the peace protest. “There was a period of silence for everyone who died in Northern Ireland” at the commemoration he says.

This is sticky stuff for Corbyn but he has handled it well. The audience member clearly believes he attended meetings supporting the IRA though.

First question: Terrorism:

Corbyn says we must not leave large areas of the world “ungoverned,” calls Islam a “wonderful faith.” Says we need to bring back stability in the Arab world. If there are “ungoverned spaces” “everybody’s under threat,” he says.

The context:

As Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went into their leaders’ debate tonight — live on Sky News and Channel 4, hosted by Jeremy Paxman — the polls showed Labour narrowing the gap between them and the Tories.

The gap is still between 6 and 12 percentage points in favour of the Conservatives, but momentum appears to be on Corbyn’s side. The gap has been nearer 20 points in recent months.

Here is Business Insider’s poll tracker chart. You can see that although the Conservative lead remains comfortable it’s in decline, and Labour’s support is increasing:

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