Opposition leaders attacked Boris Johnson for his closeness to Donald Trump on the eve of the US president’s visit to the UK for a Nato summit, as politicians clashed in a seven-way television debate.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru all expressed concern about the prime minister’s relationship with Trump, with Nicola Sturgeon saying he should “sup with a very long spoon” in dealing with him.
Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, was applauded for a speech condemning Trump for his comments on women and religious minorities, while Richard Burgon, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, accused Trump and Johnson of “conspiring” together.
Asked by an audience member whether the special relationship should stay special under Trump, Swinson said: “It seems like there’s three people in the special relationship. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
“We obviously have a hugely important relationship with the US. But make no mistake, the current occupant of the White House is not somebody who shares our values.
“This is someone who has boasted about sexually assaulting women, whose policies are discriminatory against people from different religious backgrounds and is separating parents from their children at the border. And we should be very careful with that relationship. The last thing we should have done is roll out the red carpet for a state visit.”
Burgon delivered an even more hard-hitting attack on Johnson and Trump, saying: “Look at the Muslim ban that Trump brought in. Look at the caging of migrant children. Look at the way he threatens war.
“Of course, he wants to conspire with Boris Johnson and the leader of the Brexit party in order to get his fat cat friends access to the NHS.”
Farage interrupted with “not true, lies, open lies”, and later launched into a defence of Trump as “our most important friend in the world”.
When challenged by Swinson over Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women, talking about grabbing then by the pussy, Farage said: “It was crass and it was crude and it was wrong. And men say dreadful things sometimes. But if all of us were caught out after a night out with a drink then none of us would be here. I’m sure you’ve lived the purest life of anyone and never said a word wrong about anyone.”
In the spin room where cheerleaders for the parties were preparing to defend their bosses’ performance, there was disbelief and a fair amount of shock across the political spectrum when Farage defended Trump saying that “men say dreadful things sometimes”.
Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Greens, said: “What about all those rallies where people are shouting ‘send her home’?”
He replied: “Listen, American politics is in many ways more divided than ours … you are so anti-American that your hatred comes above our national interest.”
Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, hit back at Farage’s defence of Trump, saying: “It can never be acceptable for a man to talk about grabbing a woman’s pussy and if you think it is you should be ashamed of yourself.”
He added that it was wrong for the prime minister to have referred to gay men like himself as “bum boys in tank tops” and Muslim women in burqas as looking like letterboxes.
Rishi Sunak, the Conservative representative, tried to stay out of the fray, saying Johnson was right to have a good working relationship with the US leader as well as EU leaders.
“The relationship we have with America is incredibly important for keeping us safe. That is not something to turn your nose up at,” he said. But he jumped in to try to defend Johnson’s record on LGBT rights, claiming Johnson was the first senior Conservative politician to support same-sex marriage.
Elsewhere in the debate, the politicians retrod familiar ground on the issues of the NHS, Brexit and security.
Sunak accused Labour of making “baseless allegations” by claiming that the health service is for sale to Trump.
“The real risks to the NHS are your reckless plans for the economy, Richard, which will mean there isn’t money to invest, and silly plans like the four-day week,” Sunak said.
Burgon replied: “It is not Labour’s policy to have a four-day week in the National Health Service.”
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has said that a four-day week would apply across the whole of society including the NHS as a target to work towards over the next decade.