Belfast Telegraph

Tory austerity agenda under fire from all sides as May sits out another TV debate

By David Hughes

Jeremy Corbyn has accused the Conservatives of planning another five years of austerity to pay for tax handouts for the wealthy if they win the general election on June 8.

In his opening statement in the BBC's election debate, the Labour leader said there was "nothing remotely strong or stable" about the Tories' record in office.

"Now the Conservatives want five more years of cuts to our vital public services to fund tax handouts for the wealthy few. Labour will make very different choices," he said.

Representing the Conservatives after Theresa May rejected Mr Corbyn's challenge to take part in the seven-way debate, Home Secretary Amber Rudd accused the opposition parties of offering "bluff, bravado and tempty, shiny election promises".

"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 said.

Alongside Labour leader Mr Corbyn and Ms Rudd on the stage in Cambridge were Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Ukip's Paul Nuttall, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party deputy leader Angus Robertson.

Ms Wood opened the debate with an attack on the Prime Minister for refusing to take part.

"Theresa May called this election because she is taking you for granted. She won't turn up to these debates because her campaign of soundbites is falling apart," she said.

She added that Labour in Wales was "airbrushing" Mr Corbyn out of its campaign and pleaded with voters to give her a mandate to represent the Welsh.

For Ukip, Mr Nuttall began with a pledge to "put the interests of British people first" by boosting social care and wages and slashing immigration and the foreign aid bill.

SNP Westminster leader Mr Robertson said his party would hold the Tories to account on Brexit, welfare and protecting public services, and vowed to offer "a strong voice for Scotland" in Westminster.

He said: "A vote for the SNP is a vote against Tory cuts that will harm our public services and push many more hard-working families into poverty."

Mr Farron kicked off with a jibe about Mrs May's absence, saying: "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."

The Lib Dem leader took aim at Tory plans for social care, school lunches and Brexit, while offering to shore up the NHS and allow the public to have a vote on the Brexit deal.

Mr Farron said: "Look, I know we don't all agree on Brexit but she is off to negotiate a deal for you, for me, for all of us. Imagine if it's a bad deal. I mean dementia tax bad."

Ms Rudd dismissed her rivals' claims as "fanciful" and warned their spending plans would require a "magic money tree" as she came under attack 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 highlighted his plans to end the public sector pay cap and introduce a £10 an hour living wage by 2020.

Mr Robertson claimed the Tories had "chosen to support those who are wealthiest in society" but said the SNP would put up the top rate of tax from 45p to 50p.

He said it was time to stop "punishing disabled people" and scrap the so-called bedroom tax.

Ms Rudd said the Tories had taken low earners out of income tax and had increased the amount of money paid out in disability benefits.

But she stressed: "We are going to live within our means. Some of the offers you will hear tonight are just fanciful." A strong economy was needed - which required a successful Brexit deal, she said.

Ms Rudd defended the Tory record on welfare, insisting: "We are a party who will always support those in most need."

The welfare bill for helping people with disabilities had increased £7 billion to £50bn in the last seven years, she said.

In an attack on Mr Corbyn, she said: "I know there is no extra payment you don't want to add to, no tax you don't want to rise."

She added: "We have to stop thinking, as you do, that there is a magic money tree."

Ms Lucas said Ms Rudd's response on disability benefits was "downright insulting".

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