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Leading UK election candidates answer TV audience questions

After avoiding a TV debate earlier in the week, Conservative PM Theresa May has joined Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in front of a TV audience. May's lead in the polls has shrunk ahead of next week's vote.

In a special edition of the weekly "Question Time" program, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn separately took questions from a studio audience at the University of York in the north of England on Friday evening.

With less than a week before polling day next Thursday, the Conservative lead over the opposition Labour Party has shrunk. In a projection by polling company YouGov published on Saturday, the Conservatives were on track to win 308 seats in parliament which would be 18 seats short of a 326-seat majority.

In another poll published on Saturday Opinium showed a six point lead for PM May's party - 43 percent over 37 percent for Labour - down from a ten point lead a week ago. According to the Comres polling firm, May's personal net approval rating fell to minus 3, down 12 points from a positive 9 point approval rating in February. The firm found the Conservative lead stood at 12 percentage points, well below the 21-point lead May held on April 18 when she called the surprise poll. 

An Ipsos MORI poll on Friday showed the Tory lead was five percentage points; down from 15 just over two weeks ago.

"It is clear that, on contact with the voters, Mrs. May is not going down well and she is losing ground in particular amongst middle-aged voters and female voters," Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, told Reuters.

First up Theresa May

The party leaders appeared consecutively, avoiding any exchanges or debate with each other. May went first.

The Conservative leader was asked why she had changed her mind on holding an election, and on her position towards the UK leaving the European Union.

Britannien Wahlen 2017 - BBC - Theresa May (picture alliance/empics/S. Rousseau)

Theresa May answering questions from the studio audience

"I did say at the time I thought there were advantages to remaining in the European Union," May said, but added that she had not said "the sky would fall in" if Britain left.

She said she would "deliver on the will of the people" and also "make sure we make a success" of Brexit.

But while May called the election to gain a larger majority in the House of Commons going into the two-year negotiations with Europe on the UK's exit, issues of austerity, the health and social services and pensions have increasingly dominated the debate.

May said the government had "had to take some hard choices across the public sector" to curb spending and reduce the country's deficit, as there was "no magic money tree." 

Jeremy Corbyn

Corbyn was asked why the British public should trust him and his Labour party team to negotiate Brexit. He answered that Labour would negotiate market access and his aim was tariff-free access to the EU markets. He said it would mean leaving the treaties and the EU no longer having authority over the UK.

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Separately, May and Corbyn face voters during 'question time'

Asked about environmental standards post-Brexit, Corbyn said he wanted to ensure that European environmental laws were written into British law.

Labour has made the National Health Service (NHS) a central element of its election campaign, pledging to "reverse the privatisation" of the service and to increase spending on it by UKP 7.4 billion (8.45 billion euros, $9.53 billion), funded by tax increases of about ten percent on the country's wealthiest. He said that austerity had hit public services and left people worse off with the rich being unaffected.

Corbyn was asked how he would help black and ethnic minority people and said one idea was considering name-blind job applications, so only the candidate's qualifications were presented. He said not enough had been invested in skills training. 

The Labour leader outlined terrorism, cyber attacks and environmental concerns as the major security issues facing the country. Corbyn is a lifelong opponent to nuclear weapons and has said he would not, as prime minister, use nuclear weapons which he described as "disastrous" for the whole planet.  "I don't want to be responsible for millions of deaths and neither do you," he told the audience. 

Comparing the UK economy with Germany, Corbyn said there was a need for more investment in the future.

He denied that companies might leave when faced with increased taxation. Corbyn said that the proposed tax rate was less than that in force elsewhere in Europe. 

Corbyn defended the abolition of university fees and its cost - which represents a quarter of all Labour's proposed extra spending. He said he wanted an education system which offered opportunities. 

Another Question Time special will see Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon appear in a similar format on Sunday evening.

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