Boris Johnson was on Thursday night replaced on live TV by an ice sculpture after he refused to take part in a Channel 4 election debate on climate change, prompting furious Tory claims that the broadcaster was “biased” and had organised a political stunt.
Lee Cain, Mr Johnson’s director of communications, wrote to Ofcom, the regulator, claiming the move was “part of a wider pattern of bias by Channel 4 in recent months” and suggesting it should block the broadcast.
The confrontation sharply escalated on Twitter, as the editor of the Channel 4 debate accused the Tories of using Trump-like tactics to intimidate the press.
Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 news told James Cleverly, the Tory party chairman, to “stop behaving like [Donald Trump]”, put Boris Johnson alongside other leaders “and stop playing games”.
“Don’t refuse [to participate] & then threaten our license, it’s a slippery slope,” he added
The row comes at a hugely sensitive time for public service broadcasting. Ofcom, the media regulator, has launched a review of the operations and funding of public service broadcasting, with the aim of recommending reforms that may be enacted by the next parliament. Channel 4’s public service broadcasting license is up for renewal in 2024.
Mr Johnson is already under fire for failing so far to agree a time for an interview with Andrew Neil of the BBC, and on Thursday he was locked in the dispute with Channel 4 for refusing to join other party leaders in an environmental debate.
Channel 4’s “wet chair” threat had come after the broadcaster refused to accept the Conservatives’ offer for Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister and a former environment secretary, to stand in for the prime minister.
Mr Cain claimed the broadcaster had “deprived the Conservative party of any representation in the debate” and said Ofcom had “a role to ensure that matters are addressed before transmission where possible”.
Mr Johnson and Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, another absentee, were represented by two blocks of ice, dripping under the studio lights. Mr Cain said this was “a provocative partisan stunt”.
The prime minister’s team said the prime minister could not take part in every televised debate during the election campaign and that Mr Gove was “a big beast” and “any other network would have taken him”.
Mr Gove did in fact turn up for the debate but was not allowed to take part, leaving the cabinet minister to carry out his own Facebook video interview. To add to the surreal scenes, Mr Johnson’s father Stanley, an environmentalist, was also at the event boycotted by his son.
Relations between Downing Street and Channel 4 have already been in the deep freeze, with senior Tories claiming that the broadcaster’s senior team is pursuing a political agenda.
Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4 head of news, infuriated Mr Johnson’s team in the summer by branding the prime minister a “known liar”.
The Channel 4 debate began just hours after the European Union declared a “climate emergency”, ahead of next week’s international COP25 climate summit, and amid a rising tide of concern among voters about environmental problems.
The latest YouGov poll ranks the environment as the third most important issue facing the country, behind only Brexit and the NHS, while the slew of environmental commitments in all the main parties’ manifestos suggest climate concerns have become politically mainstream.
Meanwhile Conservative officials insisted Mr Johnson had never agreed to take part in an interview with Mr Neil, with one saying it was “just another interview” that they would try to fit into the prime minister’s schedule.
Labour has accused the prime minister of “running scared” of Mr Neil. On Tuesday Mr Neil conducted a bruising interview with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in which he admitted his new taxation plans broke a longstanding party pledge not to raise taxes for people earning less than £80,000.
Mr Neil is meant to be holding interviews with all the party leaders, and he said on Thursday that discussions with Mr Johnson’s team were continuing.
Asked whether Mr Johnson was keen to take part, he replied: “You will have to ask him that but we are certainly hopeful that it will happen.”
The prime minister’s allies said that at the start of the campaign the BBC proposed a three-part “package” of events to which the prime minister would be invited, but that Mr Johnson had not at any point signed up to the full schedule.
He will take part in a head-to-head debate with Mr Corbyn on December 6 and has dispatched Treasury minister Rishi Sunak to stand in for him in a seven-way debate — including smaller parties — on Friday.
The prime minister’s media team, led by communications chief Lee Cain, said there was a genuine discussion with the BBC about an interview with Mr Neil early next week.
Tory campaigners are weighing up the risk of Mr Johnson participating in an interview with Mr Neil against the danger of the prime minister being portrayed as a coward.