A row has erupted between the Conservative Party and Channel 4, with the Tories saying the broadcaster “conspired” with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to block them from a TV leaders’ debate.
The party has made a formal complaint to Ofcom’s election committee as an ice sculpture was used in British prime minister Boris Johnson’s place in the Channel 4 News debate on climate change.
Mr Johnson was again accused of “running scared” when he did not join the other party leaders, with Michael Gove instead turning up and asking if he could stand in for Mr Johnson, before being turned away because he is not a party leader.
A letter from the Conservatives, addressed to Ofcom election committee chairman Tim Suter, said it offered Channel 4 the former environment secretary Mr Gove to be the party’s representative for the debate.
“Channel 4 News has refused to accept this representative, and stated that they intend to ‘empty chair’ the Conservative Party if the prime minister does not attend,” the letter said.
“This effectively seeks to deprive the Conservative Party of any representation and attendance at the Channel 4 News debate.”
It comes as Conservative sources were reported as saying that if the party wins the coming election, it will reassess Channel 4’s public service broadcasting licence.
A Tory source told the Daily Telegraph: “If we are re-elected we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations.”
In their letter to Ofcom, the Tories said if Channel 4 went ahead with the ice sculpture it would be “a provocative partisan stunt, which would itself constitute making a political opinion in its own right”.
Ahead of the debate, a Conservative spokesman said: “We are deeply disappointed that Channel 4 News has conspired with Jeremy Corbyn to block the Conservatives from making the case for tackling climate change and protecting the environment in this evening’s debate.”
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson wrote to Ofcom’s chief executive Sharon White, urging her to “call out this meddling”, adding: “This campaign, Boris Johnson has banned the Daily Mirror from its battle bus, ducked the Andrew Neil interview and now attempted to bully Channel 4.
“I hope you’ll stand with me in defending our free broadcast press from this gross dictatorial act.”
Before the debate, the editor of Channel 4 News, Ben de Pear, tweeted a picture of Mr Gove and the prime minister’s father Stanley Johnson, who were both at the studio.
Mr Gove also posted footage of himself arriving and asking if he could be the Conservative voice in the debate.
After the programme, Mr de Pear said: “It was very kind of Michael Gove to offer himself to appear on Channel 4 News this evening, and we always welcome him on the programme.
“However, as we made clear to him repeatedly, because he is not the leader of the Conservative Party, his participation was not required at tonight’s #climatedebate — which was strictly for party leaders only.”
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said: “Given how poorly Boris Johnson’s manifesto scored in our climate and nature ranking, it’s no surprise he refused to take part.
“This could have been an opportunity for him to set the record straight and commit to stronger policies.
“But running scared doesn’t just spark witty hashtags highlighting his cowardice, it demonstrates to voters a serious lack of leadership over a crisis that affects us all.”
Meanwhile, it has been reported that Mr Johnson will appear on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, despite refusing to commit to an interview with veteran journalist Andrew Neil after Mr Corbyn was grilled by him earlier this week.
Neither the BBC or CCHQ was able to confirm the prime minister’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show.
Conservative Charles Walker told BBC’s Newsnight: “I don’t think you can sort of bully a prime minister: ‘Admit now that you’re going to be interviewed by Andrew Neil, I want you to tell me now you’re going to be interviewed by Andrew Neil.’
“No prime minister is going to allow themselves, as he was visiting a farm shop or something with a journalist, to be bullied into saying what he’s going to be doing in the forthcoming week.”
Following the YouGov poll that put the Tories on course for a comfortable majority, both Labour and the Conservatives are focusing their efforts on Brexit voters, according to the Times, with Mr Johnson expected to speak on Friday about leaving the European Union.–PA