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Tories criticised over 'misleading' twitter account during election debate

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor

The Tories have come under fire after rebranding one of their official Twitter accounts as a fact-checking service during Tuesday night's televised election debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

Twitter issued a sharp rebuke that "any further attempts to mislead people" would result in "decisive corrective action" after the party's verified press office account was temporarily renamed "factcheckUK".

The Electoral Commission - the official elections watchdog - also issued a warning saying voters were entitled to expect "transparency and integrity" from campaigners.

Senior party figures brushed off the controversy, saying it was part of their "instant rebuttal" mechanism to challenge "nonsense" claims made by Mr Corbyn during the debate that they were preparing to sell off the NHS.

However opposition parties accused the Tories of adopting the tactics of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin to deliberately mislead the public.

The row coincided with an appeal from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to campaigners in the election to "honour the gift of truth".

In a statement, Twitter said: "Twitter is committed to facilitating healthy debate throughout the UK general election.

"We have global rules in place that prohibit behaviour that can mislead people, including those with verified accounts.

"Any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information - in a manner seen during the UK election debate - will result in decisive corrective action."

An Electoral Commission spokesman said: "While we do not have a role in regulating election campaign content, we repeat our call to all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly and to support campaigning transparency."

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted it had been perfectly clear throughout that it was a Conservative Party account and that no one among voters "gives a toss" about the cut and thrust of social media.

"It was pegged to the CCHQ account. No one who looked at it for more than a split second would have been fooled," he told BBC Breakfast.

"I knock on doors every day. No one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust. What they care about is the substance of the issues.

"Of course there is huge amounts of scepticism about the claims of all the politicians. What we are not going to do is have this nonsense put around by Labour."

However shadow equalities secretary Dawn Butler said the account should have been suspended by Twitter once they became aware of what happened.

She told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "They could have just suspended the account and taken it down and, to me, that would have been the better punishment."

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: "This is straight out of Donald Trump or Putin's playbook.

"Not content with excluding the voice of Remain from this debate, the Tories are now resorting to deliberately misleading the public.

"People know they can't trust a word that Boris Johnson or the Conservatives say."

Former Conservative minister David Gauke said it was "a blatant attempt to mislead people" by the Tories, and something which would not have happened under Theresa May or David Cameron.

Speaking on Radio 4's The World At One, Mr Gauke said: "I think it's pretty outrageous and I'm afraid it reflects a culture that exists at the moment in the Conservative Party which is about win at all cost. I'm afraid it's sort of the Vote Leave culture we saw in 2016, and it does nothing to restore trust in our political system."

He continued: "The culture is coming from the top. I don't think this is something that would have happened under Theresa May or David Cameron. I think it is something where, if you like, the sort of the 'Dominic Cummings culture' is pervasive."

He added: "Frankly, we should expect better of our politicians and our political parties."

The row comes amid repeated accusations that Mr Johnson struggles to tell the truth.

The Prime Minister was met with derisive laughter from the studio audience in Salford when he said that he considered the truth was "very important" in the General Election.

A snap YouGov poll following the debate suggested Mr Johnson came out narrowly ahead - with 51% saying they thought he had won, against 49% for Mr Corbyn.

However, on the issue of trust it was the Labour leader who came out on top, with 45% saying he was the more trustworthy, against 40% for the Prime Minister.

The Conservatives have previously faced criticism for "doctoring" a TV clip of shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer to make it appear that he had been stumped by a question on the party's policy on the EU.

Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, have issued an appeal to all those involved in the election to "speak accurately" and to engage "responsibly" on social media.

In a joint pastoral letter to the Church of England, they said: "As followers of Jesus Christ each of us is called to honour the gift of truth, both to speak it and to seek it.

"We all have a responsibility to speak accurately, to challenge falsehoods when we hear them, and to be careful to separate facts from opinion."