Jeremy Corbyn pledged to adopt a “neutral stance” in another EU referendum under Labour as he came under fire from voters during a televised grilling.
The Labour leader was questioned over fears for businesses, anti-Semitism, misogyny, freedom of speech and Scottish independence during a special episode of BBC’s Question Time on Friday.
As they try to tip the balance in the campaign for the December 12 General Election, each leader was being quizzed for half-an-hour during the show hosted by Fiona Bruce in Sheffield.
Mr Corbyn went first and faced a barrage of tough questioning and groans.
I will adopt, as prime minister, if I am at the time, a neutral stanceJeremy Corbyn on how on another EU referendum
He made his clearest comment to date over how he would act in another referendum, which Labour plans to hold between a new deal and the option to Remain within six months of taking power.
Having been asked how anyone could vote Labour without knowing what outcome he would campaign for, Mr Corbyn said that he would start by negotiating a “credible” Leave deal before he was interrupted by laughing.
“My role and the role of our government will be to ensure that that referendum is held in a fair atmosphere and we will abide by the result of it,” he continued.
“And I will adopt, as prime minister, if I am at the time, a neutral stance so that I can credibly carry out the results of that to bring communities and country together rather than continuing an endless debate about the EU and Brexit.”
Ms Bruce pressed Mr Corbyn on whether he would not pick a side during another referendum, as she brought his half-hour to a close.
“Yes,” he replied. “First heard here on Question Time.”
Mr Corbyn, who plans to re-nationalise key utilities and increase corporation tax, had been quickly forced to go on the defensive when he was asked first if “businesses should be frightened of an incoming Labour government”.
He argued “they should not be frightened”, saying that only the “biggest businesses will be asked to pay a little bit more” in corporation tax, but that that level would be lower than 2010’s.
Another angry member of the audience said that “freedom would be completely eroded” if Mr Corbyn got the keys to Number 10.
“I have spent my life getting into hot water for defending people because I believed their human rights should not be violated and that’s the kind of government that I intend to lead,” he replied.
He was also challenged by an audience member on sexism and anti-Semitism faced by Labour MPs – in particular Ruth Smeeth, who is Jewish – by an audience member who said he does not “buy this nice old grandpa” image.
“I simply say to you that bad behaviour, misogynism, racism in any form is absolutely not acceptable in any form whatsoever in my party or in society,” Mr Corbyn said.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon came next, and she cast doubt on Mr Corbyn’s stance of not allowing another independence referendum in the early years of an administration under his leadership.
She suggested he was not “going to walk away from the chance to end austerity”, and added: “I’m not sure he’s going to compromise the chance to have a Labour government for that issue.”
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was challenged over her role in austerity in coalition with the Tories and accused of treating voters as “stupid” over her plans to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit without another referendum.
Ms Swinson said: “I don’t think you can accuse us of not being upfront about wanting to stop Brexit. We’ve been crystal clear about that from the very beginning.
“Not for one second do I think that means that you or anybody like you is stupid. I think it means we disagree.”
The debate was to be closed by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson.