ITV has said it will hold an election debate with or without either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, but is not planning to embarrass them with empty chairs.
Should the Conservative and Labour leaders not attend, the most high-profile party chiefs would be the Scottish National party’s Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats, potentially alongside Ukip’s Paul Nuttall and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.
May was the first leader to refuse to take part, saying she would not be doing televised debates because she prefers on-the-ground campaigning.
Corbyn then said he would not be involved in a debate made up of opposition party representatives.
A spokesman for the Labour leader said: “Jeremy will not take part in an opposition leaders’ debate. The British people have the right to see a head-to-head debate between the only two people who could form the next government, and the prime minister’s refusal is a sign of weakness, not of strength.”
The Lib Dems confirmed Farron would be present for the event, to be chaired by ITV’s Julie Etchingham, and called on the broadcaster to use empty chairs to highlight May and Corbyn’s absence.
“Tim will be taking part in the debate and is looking forward to the opportunity to make the Liberal Democrat case. We believe this election is an opportunity to change the direction of our country,” a spokesperson said.
“We expect our hard-Brexit opponents – Labour, Ukip and Theresa May – to all take part and make their opposing case. Otherwise, we expect ITV to empty chair them.
“Tim believes, in politics, you must have the courage of your convictions. Let’s see if May and Corbyn feel the same.”
A separate series of political films featuring interviews with the party leaders will be broadcast ahead of the election, starting with Farron on 8 May, followed by May, Corbyn and Nuttall, as well as Sturgeon, Wood and the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas.
The BBC had wanted to conduct a leaders’ debate involving a head-to-head between May and Corbyn, but the prime minister is implacably opposed.
Televised debates were a key part of the 2010 general election campaign, when Nick Clegg caught the public’s attention and David Cameron and Gordon Brown were heard to say “I agree with Nick”. In 2015, the Conservatives pressed for more parties, including the Greens and SNP, to be involved, and David Cameron and Ed Miliband faced separate televised grillings.
There was a separate challengers’ debate involving the then Labour leader Miliband and other opposition leaders, but Corbyn’s team are wary of being presented as part of an anti-Tory “coalition of chaos” – one of May’s key campaign attack lines.