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Broadcasters are urged to 'empty chair' PM if she dodges TV debates

By Andrew Woodcock and David Hughes

There were calls for TV broadcasters to "empty chair" Theresa May in election-time leaders' debates after sources close to the Prime Minister indicated she will refuse to take part.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn threw down the gauntlet to the Prime Minister to agree to televised debates, which he said were "what democracy needs and what the British people deserve".

But a Downing Street source indicated that the Prime Minister would flatly reject any proposal for a TV showdown, telling the Press Association: "Our answer is no."

Veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby, who hosted debates on the BBC in 2010 and 2015, warned the "perilous" stance could backfire on the PM. "I don't think other parties will refuse to take part in debates, and I wonder whether Number 10 will stick with that, because it may look a bit odd if other parties are facing audiences and making their case," Mr Dimbleby told Radio 4's PM.

"When you are trying to say 'I speak for Britain', you've got to get out there and listen to what Britain says back to you and argue your case. I don't think you can just stand aloof from it, I think people would look down on that rather."

Mr Corbyn said: "Elections and democracy are about public debate. So it's rather strange that only a couple of hours after calling for a general election, the Prime Minister is saying she's not going to take part in TV debates.

"I say to Theresa May, who said this election was about leadership: come on and show some.

"Let's have the debates. It's what democracy needs and what the British people deserve."

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron accused Mrs May of "bottling" and said broadcasters had a "moral duty" to go ahead with the televised leaders' showdowns even if she fails to take part.

"The Prime Minister's attempt to dodge scrutiny shows how she holds the public in contempt," said Mr Farron.

"The British people deserve to see their potential leaders talking about the future of our country. I expect the broadcasters to do the right thing, don't let the Conservatives call the shots. If the Prime Minister won't attend - empty chair her."

Asked why Mrs May did not want to take part in any debates, a Conservative spokesman said: "The choice at this election is already clear - strong and stable leadership in the national interest with Theresa May and the Conservatives or weak and unstable coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn." A BBC spokesman said that it was too early to say whether the broadcaster would seek to stage a debate. ITV is understood to be considering hosting a broadcast.

Live TV debates took place for the first time in a UK general election in 2010, with three clashes between the leaders of the three biggest national parties, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

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