A planned Conservative leadership debate on Sky News tomorrow could be cancelled if Boris Johnson continues to refuse to take part, the broadcaster has said.
The 90-minute debate, called the Battle For Number 10, is due to be hosted by Sky presenter Kay Burley in front of a live audience of Conservative supporters.
But Johnson, currently the frontrunner in the race to be Britain’s next Prime Minister over Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, has so far refused the invitation.
He has only agreed to ITV News’ planned TV debate to be hosted by Julie Etchingham on 9 July, three days after Conservative party members start to receive their ballots in the post. The result is expected in the week starting 22 July.
Sky News has said this morning that if Johnson does not agree to turn up tomorrow, it will try to rearrange the head-to-head for next Monday instead.
Hunt earlier warned Johnson not to be a “coward” by avoiding the event.
“The first debate that Boris has been invited to will be on Sky News tomorrow evening,” Hunt wrote in today’s Times.
“I’ll be there. So don’t be a coward Boris, man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve.”
A statement released by the broadcaster this morning said: “Sky News has been planning to hold a debate tomorrow between the two remaining candidates in the Conservative leadership election.
“Jeremy Hunt has agreed to take part, but Boris Johnson has so far declined the invitation.
“We stand ready to host a debate tomorrow evening if both candidates make themselves available.
“Without both candidates, tomorrow’s debate will not take place. But we will reissue our invitation for Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson to debate live on Sky News next Monday, 1 July.”
In a letter to Johnson shared online on Saturday, Hunt said he was “concerned” his rival has only so far committed to the planned ITV News debate on 9 July, adding that they should not “hide away” until Conservative members submit their ballots.
“Neither Gordon Brown nor Theresa May were tested in this way before they took the top job and many think it would have been much better for our country if they had,” Hunt wrote.
“The stakes are too high to allow that to happen again.
“To date, I have accepted live televised debate invitations from Sky, the BBC, Channel 4, the Sun and ITV. My message is simple: if you want the job, you have to turn up for the interviews.”
Hunt challenged Johnson to “at least two” live televised debates in the two weeks leading up to the postal ballots being sent out.
“I will debate you anytime anywhere on live TV,” he added.
According to Hunt in the Times, he has done 16 interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme in the past year compared to Johnson’s one.
Hunt went on: “He has not appeared on The Andrew Marr Show this year and his one broadcast interview of this campaign, with World at One, was arranged with just ten minutes’ notice so Mark Mardell had no time to prepare questions. And now he is refusing point blank to do TV debates.”
Before the other hopefuls in the leadership race were knocked out, the BBC held a debate with Johnson, Hunt, Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove last Tuesday.
The Our Next Prime Minister programme, hosted by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, was watched by more than 5m viewers and drew 31 complaints to broadcast regulator Ofcom.
Two days earlier, more than 1m people tuned in to Channel 4’s debate Britain’s Next PM, which was snubbed by Johnson who was represented by an empty lectern during the 90-minute broadcast.
Picture: Reuters/Hannah McKay