By William James
READING, England (Reuters) – The leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, will take part in a live televised debate on Wednesday, hoping to capitalize on his party’s momentum as it narrows the gap with the ruling Conservatives ahead of a June 8 election.
Polls carried out since a suicide bombing killed 22 people in Manchester have shown the Conservatives’ lead over Labour shrinking, suggesting Prime Minister Theresa May might not win the landslide predicted just a month ago.
Corbyn had previously ruled out taking part in the 7-way leaders debate, and the decision may reflect an improvement in voter perception. May’s interior minister Amber Rudd is due to take part in the BBC debate on her behalf on Wednesday.
Corbyn told cheering supporters in Reading, west of London, that his campaign was gaining support.
“For all the cynical commentators … everywhere I go, all over the country, the rallies get bigger, the enthusiasm gets bigger, the determination gets bigger … and that gives us a chance to do something very, very special on June 8,” he said.
While Corbyn has attracted large crowds, May has largely avoided unscripted public appearances during the campaign.
“The Tories (Conservatives) have been conducting a stage-managed arm’s length campaign and have treated the public with contempt. Refusing to join me in Cambridge tonight would be another sign of Theresa May’s weakness, not strength,” he said.
Asked several times by reporters during a campaign event in southwest England why she was not taking part in the debate, May said she preferred to spend time meeting voters.
“Debates where politicians are squabbling among themselves doesn’t do anything for the process of electioneering. I think actually it is about getting out and about meeting voters and hearing directly from voters,” she said.
May’s ratings have been slipping since she was forced to backtrack on one of her most striking election pledges, hours before the suicide bombing which halted campaigning for several days.
A projection published by pollsters YouGov on Wednesday showed May could lose control of parliament.
May called the snap election in a bid to strengthen her hand in negotiations on Britain’s exit from the European Union, to win more time to deal with the impact of the divorce and to strengthen her grip on the Conservative Party.
But if she does not soundly beat the 12-seat majority Cameron won in 2015, her authority could be undermined just as she tries to deliver what she has told voters will be a successful Brexit.
(Reporting by William James, Writing by Elisabeth O’Leary and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Alison Williams)