Theresa May’s political rivals lined up to criticise her for not taking part in a seven-way general election debate.

She was accused of lacking “guts” and of “running away from the debate” during the 90 minute BBC TV event.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who was representing the Conservatives, said “part of being a good leader is having a good, strong team”.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not directly attack Mrs May’s absence as he clashed with Ms Rudd over cuts.

The prime minister ruled out appearing on televised debates soon after calling the election, adding on Wednesday that she preferred “taking questions and meeting people” on the campaign trail rather than “squabbling” with other politicians.

At one point, Mr Corbyn asked, “where is Theresa May, what happened to her?” as he defended his own leadership abilities.

But he engaged in a series of clashes with Ms Rudd over the squeeze on living standards and cuts to welfare as the debate heated up.

Mr Corbyn told her: “Have you been to a food bank? Have you seen people sleeping around our stations? Have you seen the levels of poverty that exist because of your government’s conscious decisions on benefits?”

The Labour leader also highlighted his plans to end the public sector pay cap and introduce a £10 an hour living wage by 2020.

He said Labour would “ensure our manufacturing industry and jobs are protected”, and he was “absolutely sure” his spending plans added up.

There was certainly a lot of heat.

Seven senior politicians scrapped over subjects from extremism to pensions, climate change to immigration, heckling, jabbing and finger pointing as they went.

There was rough and tumble over what it takes to be a leader too – Jeremy Corbyn’s political ambush of Theresa May leaving her open to the accusation she was too scared to turn up to the night’s debate.

But the Labour leader didn’t dominate, sticking to his core themes.

Liberal Democrat Tim Farron had many of the night’s punchiest lines, attacking Mrs May’s absence and the government’s record, as well as Labour’s stand on Brexit.

And while there was plenty of passion and genuine anger, it will only be in the cool light of day that it becomes clear whether all that fury changed anybody’s mind.

And he clashed with UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, who accused the Labour leader of wanting to take the country back to the 1970s, to boos from some in the audience at Cambridge.

Ms Rudd said the “squabbling” on display during the debate showed “the coalition of chaos in action”.

She said Mrs May had the strength to “take us through Brexit” and a vote for anyone else is a vote for Mr Corbyn “and that coalition”.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron launched a string of attacks on Mrs May. He said: “Where do you think Theresa May is tonight?

“Take a look out your window. She might be out there sizing up your house to pay for your social care.”

Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas said the “first rule of leadership is to show up”.

She added: “You don’t say it’s the most important election of our lifetime and not be bothered to show up.”

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said Mrs May was not there because “her campaign of soundbites is falling apart”.

SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson accused Mrs May of not having the “guts” to attend the debate as he launched an attack on Ms Rudd over cuts to the winter fuel allowance for pensioners in England.

Mr Corbyn and Mr Farron joined in with the attack, with the Labour leader shouting “what about the triple lock?” – the policy guaranteeing annual increases of at least 2.5% in the state pension, which the Conservatives want to scrap.

Ms Rudd said the Conservatives had “made a clear decision to protect the poorest in our society”. She said “winter fuel payments won’t be available for billionaires” under her party’s policy.

She dismissed her rivals’ claims as “fanciful”, saying they offered nothing but “bluff, bravado and tempting, shiny election promises”, compared with the prime minister’s “record of delivery”.

“The only question to consider is who should be in No 10 to steer Britain to a brighter future? Jeremy Corbyn with his money tree, wish list manifesto and no plan for Brexit or Theresa May with her record of delivery,” she told the audience in Cambridge.

The panel also clashed over immigration. The Green Party’s co-leader Caroline Lucas said she wanted to “make the case” for freedom of movement across the EU and the ability of people to be able to “live and love” in other countries.

“The Britain I love is a confident outward-looking country,” she said, which well knows the “benefits” of migration.

Mr Nuttall denied claims he was demonising immigrants, but said: “We have to get the population under control.”

The panel members also debated security and terrorism, the NHS and US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of climate change agreements.

Mrs May had already ruled out taking part in head-to-head TV debates, and Labour had said for weeks that Mr Corbyn would not attend unless she was there – but he sprung a surprise by changing his mind and announcing at lunchtime that he would take part.

He criticised the Tories for what he called “a stage-managed arms-length campaign”.

“Refusing to join me in Cambridge tonight would be another sign of Theresa May’s weakness, not strength,” he added.

Taking questions during a campaign visit in Bath, Mrs May said Mr Corbyn “seems to be paying far more attention to how many appearances on telly he’s doing, and he ought to be paying a little more attention to thinking about Brexit negotiations”.

Asked whether she was frightened of taking on Mr Corbyn, Mrs May said she had been doing this every week during Prime Minister’s Questions, adding that it was “so important” to be taking questions from voters.

“That’s why I’ve been doing that up and round the country,” she added.

The debate, moderated by Mishal Husain, was the latest in a series of special broadcasts ahead of 8 June general election.

This includes two Question Time shows – one on 2 June featuring Mrs May and Mr Corbyn appearing separately and a second on 4 June with Mr Farron and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Andrew Neil has been carrying out a series of interviews with party leaders.

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