UK Labour chief challenges Theresa May to debate as race tightens

"The NHS is the essence of solidarity in our United Kingdom: the institution that binds us all together; a symbol of our commitment to each other; between young and old, those who have and have not, the healthy and the sick", she said, highlighting the Tories' manifesto promise to boost health service spending by at least £8bn a year by the end of the parliament - though she would not say where the extra funds would come from.

In contrast, Corbyn, who has been dogged by claims that he is not fit for politics in the age of television, won more supporters by reasoned arguments and some passionate ripostes to Rudd.

Corbyn said he "utterly deplored" Nuttall's "subliminal attack on people of the Muslim faith" after the anti-EU party leader accused the Muslim community of not doing enough to report extremism. "I'm sure you all agree that one of the most important things that Jeremy could be doing today is showing Theresa May up for the scaredy cat that she is".

The Home Secretary took one for the Tory team, becoming a human punch-bag as her opponents rained blows on her government's record, cheered on by an apparent majority of the audience in the usually sedate surroundings of Cambridge's Senate House.

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Meanwhile, Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, branded May's decision not to attend "extreme cowardice" as her replacement Rudd floundered.

She stressed her commitment to funding the NHS, building new grammar schools and improving further education.

It was Mr Robertson who led the attack on the Conservatives on their manifesto policies on social care and the winter fuel payment, demanding answers on who would lose out from the "dementia tax".

"Where do you think Theresa May is?" he asked.

She said earlier on Wednesday that she preferred "taking questions and meeting people" on the campaign trail rather than "squabbling" with other politicians.

Mr Corbyn was replaced at the event in Stroud by the Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner.

He surprisingly did not mention Mrs May's absence, but scored an effective point as he asked Ms Rudd whether she had visited a foodbank or seen people sleeping rough.

"I heard they were coming and I'd seen on the news how great some of his rallies were so I thought I'd come down and check it out", said Jason Guy, a 28-year-old insurance worker who joined Labour a week ago after reading Corbyn's manifesto.

In campaign speech in Teesside, the Prime Minister said, freed from the "shackles" of Brussels, the United Kingdom could again become a "great global trading nation".

British Prime Minister Theresa May's political rivals have lined up to criticise her for missing a seven-way general election debate, the media reported on Thursday. She is not the prime minister.

Mr Corbyn added: "How ridiculous is that?"

Angus Robertson, the SNP's leader at Westminster, criticised the last Government's refusal to guarantee European Union workers the right to remain in Britain and said he was "astonished that the Labour Party is now aping Ukip in making the same arguments about immigration".

Video: Jeremy Corbyn: "I'm here", but where is Mrs May?

  • Julie Sanders