Boris Johnson faced barbs over his trustworthiness, controversial newspaper columns and his funding plans for the NHS tonight as he ran the gauntlet of the Question Time audience.
The Prime Minister’s appearance on the BBC‘s flagship election special began with an immediate challenge over how important it is to ‘tell the truth’.
Amid jeers from the crowd, Mr Johnson insisted that the main threat to public trust was the failure to honour the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
‘I think it is absolutely vital,’ he said. ‘And I think that the issue of trust in politics is central to this election.
‘And fundamental to the corrosion of trust in politics at the moment is the failure of politicians to deliver Brexit.’
Mr Johnson was also challenged over delays to the publication of a report on alleged Russian interference in British politics.
But he dismissed claims it had been deliberately held back to avoid embarrassment as ‘Bermuda Triangle stuff’.
Earlier, Jeremy Corbyn faced a brutal onslaught from the audience as he desperately struggled to convince voters he is fit to be PM.
The Labour leader looked shocked as he was booed when he tried to explain his party’s convoluted position on Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s appearance on the BBC’s flagship show began with an immediate challenge over how important it is to ‘tell the truth’
The Question Time election special in Sheffield this evening was hosted by Fiona Bruce
Jeremy Corbyn says he will NEVER reveal whether he backs Leave or Remain
During a particularly painful exchange, Jeremy Corbyn admitted for the first time that while he wants to renegotiate a Brexit deal and put it to a referendum, he would not back Leave or Remain at any stage.
One man said: ‘Mr Corbyn, will you campaign to remain or leave the EU. Why would anyone vote Labour without knowing the answer to that question?’
Mr Corbyn replied: ‘One, we will negotiate a credible Leave deal with the European Union.’
The audience laughed and groaned, prompting Mr Corbyn to snap back: ‘Let me finish please, I am trying to answer the gentleman’s question.
‘Secondly, we will put that alongside remain in a referendum.
‘The role of our government will be to ensure that the referendum is held in a fair atmosphere and we will abide by the result of it and I will adopt… a neutral stance so that I can credibly carry out the results of that to bring our communities and country together rather than continuing an endless debate about the EU and Brexit.’
For the first time Mr Corbyn made clear the public will never know whether he personally wants to Leave or Remain.
He told the audience that he intends to stay ‘neutral’ in a second referendum rather than backing the new package he wants to negotiate with the EU.
Mr Johnson said Mr Corbyn’s Brexit stance appeared to have ‘mutated’.
The Prime Minister then said: ‘He is now going to be neutral on the deal that he proposes to do.
‘I don’t see how he can do a deal when he is going to be neutral or indifferent about the deal that he wants to do.
‘Never mind that. I do not think whatever deal Mr Corbyn proposes, I don’t think it is sensible for this great country of ours to spend next year in yet more delectable disputations about the EU and then another referendum on Scotland.
‘How can that be right for our country?’
Mr Johnson tried to focus on Brexit during his responses to many of the questions he was asked this evenin.
But the audience laughed and groaned when he claimed MPs had been ‘given every opportunity’ to agree to his Brexit deal.
‘On your point about the reasons for having an election, let’s be in no doubt, I didn’t want to have an election,’ he said.
Who was in the QT audience tonight?
The Question Time audience was made up of around 150 people.
The BBC said it was a roughly equal split between Conservative and Labour supporters with a smaller number for the Liberal Democrats and SNP.
The corporation added that there was a slim majority for people who voted Leave over Remain, except for some who were too young to vote at the last election.
But not everyone was happy with the selection.
Former No10 communications chief Robbie Gibb tweeted: ‘This audience feels like it’s full political activists rather than typical voters.’
Other Twitter users pointed out that one of the women who asked Boris Johnson a question appeared to be Kate Rutter, an actress who starred in left-wing director Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake.
Twitter users pointed out that one of the women who asked Boris Johnson a question appeared to be Kate Rutter, an actress who starred in left-wing director Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake
‘No prime minister wants to have an election on December 12. We had to do it because Parliament is blocking Brexit.’
The audience erupted into groans when Mr Johnson added: ‘They were given every opportunity to pass it … every opportunity to pass and they passed a law to insist that extended beyond October 31.’
Aside from Brexit, Mr Johnson faced a particularly tough grilling on why a report into possible Russian interference in British democracy had not been published before the election.
Mr Johnson defended the decision and said: ‘There is absolutely no evidence that I know of to show any interference in any British electoral event.’
He added: ‘And the reason I won’t [publish it now] is I see no reason, or if I decided not to ages ago, is because I see no reason to interfere with the normal timetable… just because an election is going on.’
Mr Johnson said the idea that Russia had interfered in previous democratic events in the UK was ‘complete Bermuda Triangle stuff’.
‘As is the suggestion that the referendum… was somehow false, not fair, wrong and should now be cancelled,’ he said.
Mr Johnson also came under fire for comments he made in newspaper columns he wrote in the past.
He refused to apologise for a series of controversial remarks but insisted he had never meant to cause any hurt.
‘I have written many millions of words in my life as a journalist and I have… genuinely never intended to cause hurt or pain to anybody and that is my intention,’ he said.
‘What I will say because I think you are referring to a particular article of a year or so ago…’
Jeremy Corbyn faced a battle to convince voters he is fit to be PM tonight as he was grilled on Question Time
Mr Corbyn also reeled as he was confronted by more voters on the flagship BBC show over ‘misogynism’ and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party
Host Fiona Bruce then stepped in and said: ‘To be fair, there’s a few articles. So there’s the Muslims going around looking like letterboxes, which was last year, you referred to tribal warriors with watermelon smiles and flag-waving pickaninnies and then just to get another demographic in, tank-topped bum boys.’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘If you go through all my articles with a fine-tooth comb and take out individual phrases there is no doubt that you can find things that can be made to seem offensive and of course I understand that.’
This evening’s Question Time audience was made up of around 150 people which, the BBC said, was a roughly equal split between Conservative and Labour supporters with a smaller number for the Liberal Democrats and SNP.
It added that there was a slim majority for people who voted Leave over Remain, except for some who were too young to vote at the last election.
It is the second major TV showdown of the campaign so far – after the pair went head-to-head in an ITV special earlier this week.
That clash was generally seen as a draw, with Mr Johnson hammering his opponent over his muddled Brexit stance, while the Labour leader got in his key attack lines on the NHS.
While Mr Johnson was given a rough ride by the audience his rival for Downing Street arguably had a worse time.
During a devastating 30-minute mauling, Mr Corbyn reeled as he was confronted by voters over ‘misogynism’ and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
One man told him that he was not the ‘nice old grandpa’ he seemed.
The veteran left-winger was also asked whether business should be ‘frightened’ of a left-wing government, as a member of the audience said: ‘Your reckless socialist ideas are genuinely terrifying for me and my family.’