Channel 4 says frontrunner risks being ‘empty-lecterned’ if he refuses to take part.
Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to take part in televised Tory leadership hustings, with broadcasters saying they will embarrass the potential prime minister by replacing him with an empty lectern if he does not end his blackout on public speaking.
The frontrunner has so far taken only six questions from journalists in his highly stage-managed campaign, and has refused media requests for interviews, instead preferring a “submarine strategy” designed to avoid gaffes.
Johnson’s opponents have all committed to appear on TV leadership debates on Sunday and Tuesday, and Channel 4 has said he will be represented by an empty lectern if he refuses to take part.
Johnson is “in discussions” with broadcasters, according to his spokesman. The producers of the Channel 4 debate, which will be shown on Sunday at 6.30pm, remain hopeful that a deal can be struck during negotiations on Friday to secure Johnson’s participation in the debate. Similar discussions are continuing in relation to a BBC debate on Tuesday evening.
Johnson’s team is thought to be concerned that the debate will result in all the other candidates turning on the former foreign secretary, leaving him with little to gain from taking part. There are also concerns that some of the audience for the Channel 4 debate – which will consist of floating voters who are open to the idea of voting Conservative – could turn on Johnson, resulting in damaging viral videos of angry voters confronting him.
Sir Lynton Crosby, the longtime Tory campaign strategist who has informally advised Johnson on strategy, has long been sceptical of televised debates, which are perceived to damage frontrunners. He tried to stop David Cameron taking part in the 2010 general election debates, which resulted in a surge in support for the Lib Dems, and also helped run the Conservatives’ disastrous 2017 general election campaign, in which Theresa May ducked out of the televised debates.
In a joint statement, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart said the leadership contest was “a critical moment” for both the UK and the Conservative party, and all candidates needed to face scrutiny.
They said: “The next Conservative leader, and prime minister, will have the crucial task of uniting Britain behind a new vision – not only to deliver Brexit, but to define what comes next.
“This leadership contest provides an important opportunity to debate, to shape and to define the ideas which will underpin those competing visions. That is why we are committed to taking part in the Channel 4 televised debates this Sunday and the BBC programme next Tuesday.”
Those campaigning against Johnson said his strategy of avoiding media scrutiny could land the Tories with the same sort of leadership coronation that delivered victory for Theresa May without her being stress-tested under the spotlight.
A campaign spokesman for Stewart said the next leader must demonstrate they had the ability to “win back old voters and win over new audiences”.
He added: “Any candidate who seeks that mantle can hardly opt out of a public debate. If any candidate ducks that duty, there is a simple question we should ask: ‘What have you got to hide?’”
Hancock is understood to be considering pulling out of the race and supporting another candidate with a better chance of winning the 33 votes needed to get past the next round.
The Times reported the health secretary met Javid, the home secretary, but the meeting appears not to have resulted in any agreement and Hancock is thought to be more likely to back Gove or Hunt.
There are calls for the four candidates at the bottom of the results table to drop out to speed up the process of selecting the next leader.
One of Johnson’s supporters described the four as “vanity candidates”, the Telegraph reported, and said only Johnson, Hunt and Gove should stay in the race. They added: “Anyone else who tries to carry on is being indulgent.”
If there were only three candidates left by next Tuesday’s vote, one would be eliminated and the contest could proceed to the next stage of voting by the party membership the same day, instead of next Thursday as scheduled.