Theresa May was forced to defend her record as Home Secretary and Prime Minister after she was accused by a voter on live TV of "broken promises and backtracking".
In a live BBC1 Question Time special from York, audience member Abigail Eatock told Mrs May that she had U-turned on her decision not to call an election and on her social care plans.
And she accused her of ducking debates with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was appearing separately on the programme after the PM refused to go head-to-head with her rival.
But Mrs May insisted she was not avoiding debate, saying she preferred to answer questions direct from voters rather than arguing with fellow politicians.
And she defended her decision to go back on her initial position when she became PM that an early election would cause instability and rejected the idea she had called a snap election for party political gain, telling the audience: "I had the balls to call an election."
Opening the 90-minute programme, Ms Eatock challenged Mrs May directly: "Why should the public trust anything you say or any of your policies when you have a known track record of broken promises and backtracking during your time as Home Secretary and now Prime Minister?"
Mrs May responded by giving a defence of her record as Home Secretary of excluding hate preachers and reining in stop and search.
"I said I would be tough on crime and I said I would ensure our police and our security services had the powers they need to be able to do their job, and I gave them those in the legislation that I put through," she said.
"And I made sure that we kept the records of criminals and terrorists on the DNA database, whereas Diane Abbott wants to wipe them clean. I don't think that's a good idea because they help us catch criminals."
Ms Eatock won loud applause as she retorted: "You said you wouldn't call an election and you did. You are refusing to take part in debates, refusing to answer people's questions, refusing to talk to Jeremy Corbyn. And you've backtracked on your social care policy. Your entire manifesto has holes in it, and everyone else can see that."
But Mrs May said: "I'm not refusing to take part in debates, because I'm here answering questions from you. That's what I think is important in an election campaign - not politicians arguing amongst each other, but actually listening and taking questions from voters."
She insisted she had initially thought an early election was unnecessary but found that other parties were determined to destabilise the Brexit process.
"I could have said 'I'm Prime Minister, there's another couple of years going, why don't I just stay and hang on in the job?'" she said "But I didn't do that.
"I've called an election because of Brexit. I was willing to do that because I think this is a really important moment for our country. We've got to get it right.
"If we get it right, I'm optimistic for the British people because I believe in the British people. But we've got to get it right."
Mrs May was repeatedly challenged over her decision to call a snap election.
One Tory supporter in the audience asked if she regretted and felt "remorse" about the decision because of the shrinking poll gap.
Mrs May repeated her mantra that "the only poll that matters is the one that takes place on polling day" and insisted she was right to have the "balls" to go to the country.
"It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me having become Prime Minister after the referendum, when David Cameron resigned, to say 'the next election is not 'til 2020'," she said.
"In this job I do what I believe is the best for Britain. I could have stayed on doing that job for another couple of years and not called an election.
"I had the balls to call an election."
In a swipe at the prospect of Labour running the country, she said: "We have a situation at the moment where if Jeremy Corbyn was to get into Number 10, he'd be being propped up by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists.
"You would have Diane Abbott who can't add up sitting around the Cabinet table, John McDonnell who is a Marxist, Nicola Sturgeon who wants to break our country up and TIm Farron who wants to take us back into the EU - the direct opposite of what the British people want."
On Brexit, Mrs May said she would not accept a bad deal as she claimed some countries wanted to "punish" the UK in withdrawal negotiations.
She said: "On the one hand, you have got politicians in Europe, some of whom are talking about punishing the UK for leaving the EU. I think what they want to see in terms of that punishment will be a bad deal.
"And, secondly, you have got politicians here in the United Kingdom who seem to be willing to accept any deal whatever it is just for the sake of getting a deal. And, I think, the danger is they'd be accepting the worst possible deal at the highest possible price."
The PM said she had backed Remain in the referendum, but now wanted to carry out the will of the people.
"I set out very carefully before the referendum why I believed, on balance, we should stay in the EU. I also said the sky will not fall in if we leave the EU.
"I did say at the time that I thought there were advantages, on balance, in being in the EU. But now, what I believe we must do is deliver on the will of the people."
Mrs May came under fire from nurses over their experience of incomes falling in real terms, as a result of the 1% cap on annual public sector pay rises.
Nurse Victoria Davey told her: "My wage slips from 2009 reflect exactly what I'm earning today. How can that be fair, in the light of the job that we do?"
And a male nurse said: "I've had a real-terms decrease of 14% since 2010, so don't tell us we're getting a pay rise."
Mrs May said: "I recognise the job that you do, but we have had to take some hard choices across the public sector in relation to public sector pay restraint.
"We did that because of the decisions we had to take to bring public spending under control, because it wasn't under control under the last Labour government.
"And I'm being honest with you in terms of saying that we will put more money into the NHS, but there isn't a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want."
Another audience member told her: "You're cutting NHS spending, but you also cut tax for the rich."
And moderator David Dimbleby challenged the Prime Minister: "Do you think it is fair that the nurses get just a 1% increase year in, year out, regardless of inflation, so they get poorer, so some of them we're told go to food banks?
"Is that fair? Do you sleep happy at that?"
Mrs May responded: "The public sector has been restrained in its pay to a 1% increase. Of course there will be those in the NHS, nurses and others, who will get progression pay as well as their 1%.
"People in the public sector, across all sorts of services, are working very hard on jobs we want them to do because they are about looking after us, about protecting us, about caring for us.
"But we have to look at public sector spending, we have to make sure that we are managing our money carefully because at the end of the day there isn't a magic money tree that suddenly delivers all the money everybody wants for the spending everybody wants."
She said that Mr Corbyn was likely to suggest that "you can ask for anything you want to have money spent on, but actually you can't. It's not there. We have to ensure we manage your money - taxpayers' money - carefully".
Mrs May stepped up her attack on shadow home secretary Ms Abbott: "She wants to wipe the records of criminals and terrorists from the DNA database.
"That would mean that we could catch fewer criminals and fewer terrorists."
Mrs May was also confronted by mental health patients who told her they had lost benefits due to failing Work Capability Assessments.
One woman told her she had waited over a year for an appointment for NHS counselling.
"The NHS is an absolute shambles for mental health at the moment," the woman said. "I have suffered so much over that year in part because of the Work Capability Assessment."
Apparently struggling to hold back tears, the woman told the PM: "Let me tell you, I am partially sighted, I have mental health problems and other issues. I went into my assessment and I was asked in detail about suicide attempts and I came out crying because I was so upset because of the way I was treated by that nurse.
"And she came out after me because she had forgotten to measure my eyesight. She found time to insult me by asking for all these upsetting details."
Mrs May replied: "I'm not going to make any excuses for the experience you had. That's why I think it's so important that we do deal with mental health."
She said she wanted to take action to improve Work Capability Assessments and to improve support in schools as part of an effort to enhance the treatment of those with mental health problems.
Mrs May appeared not to know if the UK gave foreign aid to support programmes in North Korea when tackled on the issue by questioner and Tory supporter Robert Waite.
Asked if Britain was giving aid to North Korea, the PM said: "Well, the gentleman has suggested that it did. I don't know the details of that."
The PM defended the foreign aid budget, saying: "I think it is right that we say that we help those ... people who are less well off than we are in those developing countries."
Accused of caring less about schoolchildren than Labour by a questioner, Mrs May said: "I don't care less about the children. I do care about education."
Mrs May defended her decision not to sign a joint letter with the leaders of Germany, Italy and France opposing US President Donald Trump's decision to quit the Paris agreement on climate change.
The PM said: "I haven't because I actually have spoken to Donald Trump and told him that the UK believes in the Paris agreement and that we didn't want the United States to leave the Paris agreement.
"I have spoken to him. I spoke to him last night about this. He says he has taken the decision because he thinks it is in the best interests of America.
"I say that the Paris agreement actually is important for us globally in terms of us dealing with climate change. That is why the UK supported it. And it's why the UK is continuing to support it."