Jeremy Corbyn will not take part in TV debate without Theresa May

Heather Stewart Political editor
Jeremy Corbyn and his team are wary of being caricatured as part of an anti-Tory ‘coalition of chaos’. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn will not take part in a television debate during the general election campaign if Theresa May refuses to turn up, his spokesman has said.

May has said she is happy to be interviewed on television during the campaign but will not take part in any head-to-head debates.

Broadcasters have said they could still hold a debate with the leaders of all the opposition parties, but Corbyn’s spokesman said the Labour leader would not take part in such a programme.

“If you’re talking about a debate about the possible outcomes of the general election, you’re talking about Labour and the Conservatives first and foremost, so to have a debate among the opposition parties doesn’t meet that objective at all.”

He explained: “We’ve made clear that this election is a choice between a Conservative government or a Labour government; there is no other possible outcome, and it’s extraordinary that the prime minister feels unable to face a television debate with the leader of the only other possible government that could come out of this election.

“It’s a sign of weakness, not of strength, and we are continuing to press to have those debates, and to have a head-to-head with Theresa May, and we are confident that if the British public gets to see that debate, with Theresa May having to face Jeremy Corbyn in a direct debate, they would respond to Labour’s message, and that’s one of the reasons they’re running scared.”

The televised debates were a key part of the 2010 campaign, when Nick Clegg caught the public’s attention and both David Cameron and Gordon Brown found themselves admitting “I agree with Nick”. In 2015 the Conservatives pressed for more parties, including the Greens and the SNP, to be involved, and David Cameron and Ed Miliband also faced separate television grillings.

There was a separate “challengers” debate involving Miliband and the other opposition leaders, but this time Corbyn’s team are wary of being caricatured as part of an anti-Tory “coalition of chaos” – one of May’s key campaign attack lines.

Corbyn’s spokesman struck an upbeat note about Labour’s prospects in the election, insisting the Conservatives’ commanding poll lead was likely to narrow once the campaign got under way and the public got to hear Labour’s message “in our own voice”.

“We are confident that we can win this election, and we’re fighting for every seat, and we’re confident that once Labour’s message is clearly heard and there is a chance for the public to hear policies that many of them won’t have heard before, but which are extremely popular, and we know to be so, that will have cut-through, and Labour support will increase.”

He said recent events had shown that political polling has a “chequered record”.”The politics and the polling is actually quite complex and quite varied across different countries, and I don’t think it’s just a technical issue to do with the polling companies that we’re in; I think it’s to do with the volatile and fluid political situation, with much more fragmentation.”

Labour believes the strict rules governing broadcasters during elections will help them to shift the focus to their policies – which internal polling suggests will be well received – rather than seeing everything through the prism of Corbyn’s leadership.

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