The leaders of the four main political parties faced a series of bruising encounters with a BBC Question Time audience - with Boris Johnson having to fend off claims he buried a report into Russian interference in British politics and Jeremy Corbyn confronted over “disgraceful” anti-Semitism in his party.
Ahead of the December 12 general election, each leader was being quizzed for half-an-hour during the Leaders’ Special hosted by Fiona Bruce in Sheffield, with the questions escalating in their hostility as stock lines were greeted with groans and derision.
Here are seven of the key moments.
‘I don’t buy this nice old grandpa’
Jeremy Corbyn faced hostile questioning from the very start as he was confronted over fears for businesses, anti-Semitism, misogyny, freedom of speech and Scottish independence
The first major flashpoint came when an audience member labelled his actions “disgraceful” over a Jewish Labour MP being heckled out of a press conference.
The man claimed the Labour leader “chatted happily” to the same heckler who barracked Ruth Smeeth.
“I don’t buy this whole nice old Grandpa,” he said. “I see that video and that tells me all I need to know.”
“I’m terrified for my daughters after I see what you do in that video,” the man said.
“I don’t understand how you can stand up for human rights and free speech when that’s how you support a Labour MP at a Labour press conference. I think it’s disgraceful.”
Corbyn responded: “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.”
‘I will adopt a neutral stance,’ says Corbyn of another Brexit referendum
Some news was committed. Corbyn said he will adopt a “neutral stance” at the fresh Brexit referendum that would follow a Labour election victory.
Labour had announced plans for a special conference, to agree whether to back Remain or Leave, after negotiating a new deal with the EU.
But Corbyn said: “I will adopt, as prime minister at the time, a neutral stance.”
Did Corbyn just make some news? "I will adopt a neutral stance" he said. I thought his position was he would campaign for Remain or Leave, but whichever way a special Labour conference decided.— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) November 22, 2019
Closing the debate, Bruce asked: “And just to be clear, in a yes or no answer, you are telling us tonight that you will… remain neutral on the issue of whether or not we should remain within the EU?”
Corbyn replied: “Yes,” adding: “First heard here on Question Time.”
Sturgeon: Corbyn will cave to a deal with SNP
Nicola Sturgeon had an easier ride than the others. Most notably in her session hinted at a post-election pact with Labour as she said Corbyn will have little choice but to back a second independence referendum if he wants to be PM.
The SNP leader said: “Do you think he’s going to walk away from the chance to end austerity, to protect the NHS, stop Universal Credit, simply because he wants for a couple of years to prevent Scotland having the right to self-determination?
“I’m not sure he’s going to compromise the chance to have a Labour government for that issue.”
Sturgeon dangling prospect of a Labour-SNP deal will delight the Tories, remember this from 2015 pic.twitter.com/6NpmvRsEF1— Emily Ashton (@elashton) November 22, 2019
‘Do you know how ridiculous that sounded?’
Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson was up third, and immediately faced a buffeting - and perhaps faced the roughest half-hour. She 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.
Setting the tone, her first interrogator asked: “Do you regret starting off the campaign by saying you could be PM and do you now agree how ridiculous that sounded?”
Swinson aides had suggested to HuffPost UK at the start of the campaign that they were adopting a ‘bicep kissing strategy’, the reverse of usual political expectations management.
THAT FIRST QUESTION FOR SWINSON WAS SAVAGE LOOOOOOL #bbcqt— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) November 22, 2019
“Start with the easy ones,” Swinson quipped before saying she did not regret her decision, adding that the election was not a binary choice between Corbyn and Boris Johnson.
She added: “There is still three weeks left in this campaign, and all I would say to anybody that thinks that you can predict the outcome of the election in the middle of the campaign – ask Theresa May how that worked out last time around.”
A moment of levity. Dodgy Lib Dem bar charts found on election campaign leaflets are something of a standing joke inside politics. Somehow, the issue has now made its way onto prime time TV.
“I’m a bit of a data geek,” said Swinson, as she defended the questionable graphics. “All bar charts need to be right and clear.”
Oh hell, they're making a Lib Dem leader defend Lib Dem bar charts. That's against the Geneva Convention— Robert Hutton (@RobDotHutton) November 22, 2019
BREAKING: Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson says she supports accurate, "properly-labelled" bar charts on election literature. Big move for the party.— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) November 22, 2019
Jo Swinson says she’s “a bit of a data geek” which makes the bar charts... worse I think?— Hannah Al-Othman (@HannahAlOthman) November 22, 2019
‘This is complete Bermuda Triangle stuff’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was not spared a lashing as he was the last leader up.
He was asked about a major report examining Russian influence in British politics that will not be published until after the election. Critics argue the Conservative government is “sitting on the report” because of fears it could damage its prospects at the polls, but government ministers say it’s down to the “machinery of government”.
When confronted over claims it should have been released last month, and he was deliberately holding the report back, Johnson said: “This is complete Bermuda Triangle stuff.
“As is the suggestion that the referendum… was somehow false, not fair, wrong and should now be cancelled.”
Concerns about Russian interference in UK elections are “complete Bermuda triangle stuff,” says Boris Johnson, days after accepting a £200,000 donation from the wife of a former Putin ally. #bbcqt https://t.co/fxN92sd8wY— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) November 22, 2019
Johnson refuses to apologise for offensive language
The PM was questioned about his many controversial columns as a journalist, and asked to apologise and admit he had personally contributed to “racist rhetoric”.
He was quizzed on articles where he called gay clubbers “tank-topped bumboys” and referred to Muslim women wearing burkas as “looking like letter boxes”.
When Bruce started to ask “if you look at the article ...” an audience member interrupted with the heckle: “Which one?”
Johnson said: “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.
“What I will say because I think you are referring to a particular article of a year or so ago…”
Bruce stepped in to say: “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.”
The audience scoffed after Johnson said: “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 article originally appeared on HuffPost.