Why did Boris Johnson refuse to attend tonight’s Channel 4 leaders’ debate on the climate? His party has gone to war with the broadcaster, writing to Ofcom before the programme even started to complain about the way the prime Minister had been ’empty-chaired’, a slowly-melting ice sculpture replacing him (and another for Nigel Farage). According to the letter, signed by Tory spinner Lee Cain, the rationale for turning down the invitation was that Channel 4 has marked itself out as being anti-Tory with a ‘wider pattern of bias’, including the channel’s head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne ‘making highly personal and unpleasant attacks on the Prime Minister at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August’.
The Conservatives sent Michael Gove, former Environment Secretary, to debate in Johnson’s place, but Channel 4 refused on the grounds that the other leaders present had agreed to appear on the programme with other leaders. And so the replacement Boris sculpture (a model of the earth with a Conservatives logo on it, rather than a dripping replica of the PM himself) sat silently throughout the broadcast while Conservative MPs and Channel 4 journalists argued noisily on Twitter.
The odd thing more widely about the Tories turning down this opportunity for Johnson to appear on the programme is that they have poured much effort into persuading voters that their green credentials are strong and that the climate and the wider environment are personal priorities of Boris Johnson. Regardless of Gove’s own expertise in this area, sending a Cabinet minister rather than the Prime Minister does signal that this isn’t so important, after all.
As it happens, the debate had enough voices in it to make it easy enough for a Conservative who has talked a great deal about climate change and who is quite happy to disown the record of his party over its past nine years in government when it suits him. The Tories might feel that the hit they’ll take for refusing to put Johnson up for the debate would be smaller than the risk of him attending the debate. But they are also clearly keen to have a fight with a broadcaster which switches the attention away from the matter of climate change, and onto process. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother picking a fight with a broadcaster with just two weeks to go until polling day.