Conservatives and Channel 4 clash after Michael Gove turned away from climate debate

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

The Conservatives and Channel 4 have become embroiled in a public spat after the broadcaster decided to "empty chair" Boris Johnson from its debate on climate change.

The Conservatives have made a formal complaint to Ofcom's election committee as an ice sculpture was used in Mr Johnson's place for the debate, which was broadcast last night.

Former Environment Secretary Michael Gove was sent in place of Mr Johnson, but the broadcaster said the debate was only open to party leaders.

The Tories accused the broadcaster of "conspiring" with Jeremy Corbyn to block them from the debate.

They have written to Ofcom's election committee, saying that the use of an ice sculpture in place of the prime minister was a "provocative partisan stunt".

An ice sculpture is put in place for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the studio at the Channel 4 News debate Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

In a letter to Ofcom, the Conservatives wrote: "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.”

Sources within the Conservative Party have allegedly threatened to review Channel 4's public service broadcasting licence if re-elected.

Their current broadcasting licence is to be reviewed in 2024.

A Tory source told the Daily Telegraph: "If we are re-elected we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations.”

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.”

  • ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener asks Michael Gove and Stanley Johnson why the prime minister isn't taking part in the climate debate

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.”

Shadow education secretary Gavin Williamson said the Conservatives have "no plans" to change Channel 4's public service broadcasting role.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "The Government has got no plans - you have seen our manifesto - we've got no plans in terms of changing what Channel 4 does.

"We have an issue which we're going to raise with Ofcom and we hope that Ofcom look at this very seriously and Channel 4 respond to it as well.

"It was a gimmick as to what they did. It was a shame that what they did didn't actually add to the debate. Michael (Gove) would have been a real asset to have on."