Boris Johnson will be replaced by an ice sculpture if he fails to take part in a Channel 4 election debate on climate change on Thursday, prompting claims by the prime minister’s team that the broadcaster is organising a politically motivated stunt.
Mr Johnson is already under fire for failing so far to agree a time for an interview with Andrew Neil of the BBC, and he is now locked in a dispute with Channel 4 for refusing to join other party leaders in an environmental debate.
Channel 4’s “wet chair” threat came after it refused to accept the Conservatives’ offer for Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister and former environment secretary, to stand in for the prime minister.
Mr Johnson’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 that “any other network would have taken him”.
Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 News, said two ice sculptures in the studio where the environmental debate was taking place would “represent the emergency on planet earth” rather than taking “human form”.
They would act as “a visual metaphor for the Conservative and Brexit parties after their leaders declined our repeated invitations to attend tonight’s vital climate debate”, he added.
Relations between Downing Street and Channel 4 are already 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”.
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.
Mr Johnson has refused to debate with Scottish National party leader Nicola Sturgeon on the grounds that she is not standing to be an MP.
However the prime minister’s media team, led by his communications chief Lee Cain, said there was a genuine discussion with the BBC about taking part in 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.
Craig Oliver, Downing Street head of communications when David Cameron was prime minister, described Mr Neil as a particularly risky prospect for politicians given his ability to use basic policy detail as a “weapon” against politicians. “They can fall foul of that massively,” he said.
Labour claimed Mr Corbyn only agreed to an interview with Mr Neil — where the party leader’s position on anti-Semitism and the public finances came under intense scrutiny — after being told by the BBC that the prime minister would also do the same at a later date.
BBC insiders denied Labour was told Mr Johnson had confirmed his participation. One said the broadcaster could not be left in the position of having to cancel a series of interviews because one party refused to take part.