Downing Street and Channel 4 are at war this morning after Boris Johnson snubbed an election debate and the broadcaster decided to replace him with an ice sculpture.
The Tories sent Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office and a former environment secretary, to represent them but Channel 4 insisted the event was for party leaders only and turned him away.
The broadcaster’s decision to effectively ban the Conservative Party from the debate prompted Tory fury as Mr Johnson’s team wrote to the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom to make a formal complaint.
Mr Johnson’s head of communications Lee Cain said in the letter that the decision was ‘unfair’ and was part of a ‘wider pattern of bias’ after a Channel 4 executive used a speech in the summer to claim the PM is a ‘known liar’.
A Tory spokesman then accused Channel 4 of ‘conspiring with Jeremy Corbyn’ to stop voters from hearing the Conservatives’ plan for how to tackle the climate emergency.
Meanwhile, Tory sources said that if they win a majority at the election on December 12 then Channel 4 will face a formal review of its public service broadcasting obligations.
Mr Johnson said this morning that he did not bother to watch the event as he said he had ‘done plenty of debates’ and the Tories had ‘made it clear ages ago we weren’t going to do that one’.
Asked specifically about the ice sculpture stunt, Mr Johnson suggested it had backfired.
‘I didn’t see the debate but it is notable that people have talked more about that than any of the substance that came out of the debate and I think that is a shame,’ he said.
He also distanced himself from the suggestion Channel 4 could face a review as he told LBC radio: ‘I want a free, fair, objective, dynamic, exuberant, unbridled media. I think that a free press is one of the glories of our country and I want to protect it and enshrine it.’
Boris Johnson, pictured during an appearance on LBC this morning, is at war with Channel 4
Michael Gove (pictured) said the other party leaders blocked him from taking part in the debate on climate change last night
Channel 4 refused to let Mr Gove take part and replaced Mr Johnson with an ice sculpture for the duration of the debate
A pair of ice sculptures were placed on stage by Channel 4 – one for Mr Johnson and one for Nigel Farage who also snubbed the event
Mr Johnson had refused to take part in last night’s debate because SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was participating.
The Prime Minister has been adamant he will not debate Ms Sturgeon because she is not standing to be an MP at the election.
Five party leaders did take part in the showdown: Mr Corbyn, Ms Sturgeon, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, Plaid Cumru leader Adam Price and co-leader of the Greens Sian Berry.
Mr Gove arrived at Channel 4’s studios to try to talk his way into the debate but his pleas were rejected.
The broadcaster then went ahead with the event, replacing Mr Johnson and Nigel Farage, who also snubbed the debate, on stage with a pair of ice sculptures which flanked the other leaders.
The way in which Channel 4 has behaved in relation to last night’s event has left the Tories spitting venom.
A Conservative Party source told the Telegraph: ‘If we are re-elected we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations.
‘Any review would of course look at whether its remit should be better focused so it is serving the public in the best way possible.’
A Tory spokesman claimed after the debate that the broadcaster was working hand in hand with Labour to prevent the Conservative Party from having its say.
The 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.’
The Tories had tried to force Channel 4 to change its mind by submitting a formal complaint to Ofcom just before the broadcast went live.
In the letter, Tory communications chief Mr Cain said the ice sculptures were a ‘provocative partisan stunt’.
‘It would be detrimental to the public interest and news reporting by public service broadcasters if such a wide spectrum of speaking and debate events could not take place, purely because of arbitrary requirements by broadcasters insisting on specific individuals attending,’ he wrote.
‘This is part of a wider pattern of bias by Channel 4 in recent months. It follows Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs, making highly personal and unpleasant attacks on the Prime Minister at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August.
‘I would be grateful if Ofcom could consider this matter with due urgency.’
Mr Cain also said it was ‘unfair’ to exclude the Tories because TV debates in the past have featured party representatives who were not leaders.
As the broadcaster refused to budge, Mr Gove turned up at its studios in London with his own camera crew saying in a video streamed to his Twitter followers that as an ex-environment secretary he should be allowed to take part.
Mr Gove said a staff member called Ed had told him he couldn’t speak to the programme’s editor, at which point the Tory heavyweight asked if he would approach the other party leaders taking part to ask if they would include him.
Speaking outside the headquarters, Mr Gove said: ‘He reported back to me that every other party had said no they do not want a Conservative on the platform. They wouldn’t accept a conservative voice.’
‘I think that’s a denial of debate,’ he added. ‘I think that’s a denial of democracy.’
He accused other parties of ‘running scared’.
Mr Corbyn tweeted that he was off to debate the ‘greatest issue facing our planet’ as he headed into the studio.
Mr Gove retweeted him and added: ‘But you were too scared to debate a Conservative and preferred to be challenged by a giant ice cube.’
Alex Thomson, chief correspondent and presenter for Channel 4 News, was one of the staff that greeted Mr Gove as he tried to edge into the debate flanked by Mr Johnson’s father, Stanley.
Mr Thomson ridiculed the Daily Telegraph’s front page coverage of the confrontation, writing on Twitter: ‘DT tomorrow makes me sound like a bouncer. It was an amicable conversation.
‘But « a leader » is not « the leader » despite him telling me not to worry about prepositions… ‘
It came after he shared his exchange with the Tory on social media, writing: ‘M Gove said to me ‘I am a leader’. I said ‘but you’re not the leader’.he said I shouldn’t worry about prepositions. I said they were completely different jobs.’
Social media users ridiculed Mr Gove, accusing him of a publicity stunt and of distracting from the debate.
The PM refused to take participate in any debates with Ms Sturgeon in the run up to December 12 on the grounds that she is not standing to be an MP. Mr Farage said he didn’t trust Channel 4 to be objective.
The Tories first put forward Mr Gove earlier this week as a potential replacement for Mr Johnson.
Stanley Johnson (third from left) joined Michael Gove as he stormed the Channel 4 studios in Westminster, central London
Gove (pictured at the Channel 4 headquarters) slammed his political rivals after he was denied a spot for the party leader debate
But that offer was shot down and the broadcaster yesterday afternoon confirmed its plan to replace the pair with ice sculptures.
Beforehand, Channel 4 news editor Ben de Pear said: ‘These two ice sculptures represent the emergency on planet earth, not in any human form but are a visual metaphor for the Conservative & Brexit parties after their leaders declined our repeated invitations to attend tonight’s vital climate debate.’
As he introduced the politicians, host Krishnan Guru-Murthy said: ‘We kept the invitations open to the leaders of the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party. They have not taken up their places … yet.’
Mr de Pear also revealed that Mr Johnson’s father Stanley had tried to argue his way in, saying of him and Mr Gove: ‘They were lovely and charming but neither are the leader.’
After the initial request sent earlier this week to allow Mr Gove to take part, a spokeswoman for Channel 4 News said: ‘Michael Gove is not the party leader.’
Mr Johnson’s decision to snub the event and Channel 4’s decision to block Mr Gove sparked a wide array of political fallout.
Labour shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis said: ‘Britain deserves a Prime Minister that has enough of a backbone to face up to scrutiny.’
Conservative Party chair James Cleverly tweeted at Channel 4 News editor Mr De Pear: ‘This is not a presidential election.’
And Mr De Pear said: ‘Then stop behaving like @realDonaldTrump with the press and media. Put your leader @BorisJohnson alongside the other leaders and stop playing games.
‘Don’t refuse & then threaten our license it’s a slippery slope. All the parties complain about us but they’re here #ClimateDebate.’