Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood turned Theresa May's "strong and stable" slogan on its head as she accused the prime minister of displaying "weak and unstable" leadership by snubbing the first TV debate of the general election campaign on Thursday 18 May.

"You may be too scared to come here tonight," Wood said. "For your U-turns to be highlighted and your cruel policies to be exposed. That is weak leadership – weak and unstable. Those here tonight will show that real leadership is standing up for what you believe in, not hiding from it."

The comments came within the opening minutes of the ITV leaders' debate, hosted at MediaCityUk in Salford.

May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn decided not to attend the event, while Wood, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Ukip chief Paul Nuttall, Liberal Democrat's Tim Farron and Green co-leader Caroline Lucas did.

"May – backed by Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn – is going for an extreme Brexit deal that will damage our future for generations," Farron said.

The event comes just three weeks before the general election on 8 June. The latest YouGov poll, of more than 1,800 voters between 16 and 17 May, gave the Conservatives a 13 point lead over Labour (45% versus 32%).

May, meanwhile, unveiled her party's manifesto in Halifax, West Yorkshire, on Thursday. The Tory premier promised that her "mainstream government" would deliver "mainstream Brexit".

"The government I lead will provide strong and stable leadership to see us through Brexit and beyond: tackling the long-term challenges we face, and ensuring everyone in our country has the chance to get on in life," she said. "We need that strong and stable leadership now more than ever."