Andrew Neil looked down the camera on Thursday night, addressing an audience of millions, and challenged Boris Johnson to face a primetime one-on-one interview about his suitability for the highest office in the country.
In response, the Conservatives have told the BBC to go away and find a better format.
A senior Tory party source has responded to Neil’s challenge to appear on the BBC One leaders’ interviews by saying live televised interviews are anachronistic and pointless: “The public are fed up with interviews that are all about the interviewer and endless interruptions. The format is tired and broken and needs to change if it is to start engaging and informing the public again.”
The Conservative source insisted they were not definitely ruling out putting the prime minister up for an Andrew Neil interview, although with only days left of the campaign there are few opportunities for it take place and the Conservatives have shown no inclination to fix a date.
Every other major party leader has subjected themselves to a halfhour interview by Neil, often resulting in a string of negative headlines following his tough line of questioning.
However, the Conservatives have shown themselves increasingly willing to break with traditional campaigning norms – with limited downsides in a disintegrating media age where television ratings are falling. The potential pitfalls of a viral clip of Johnson struggling under scrutiny and seen by millions on social media could be substantially more damaging than the negative headlines around him running away from the interview.
Neil took the unusual decision to address the nation at the end of Thursday night’s interview with Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, spelling out how the prime minister had avoided scrutiny. “We have been asking him for weeks now to give us a date, a time, a venue. As of now, none has been forthcoming. It is not too late. We have an interview prepared, oven-ready as Mr Johnson likes to say,” he said.
“The theme running through our questions is trust, and why at so many times in his career in politics and journalism, critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy.”
The saga over Johnson’s refusal to do the Neil interview has caused internal chaos at the BBC, with Labour furiously insisting it was operating under the belief that the Conservatives had agreed to take part before it allowed Corbyn to appear.
Within the BBC there is fury about the challenge to its integrity, believing that the prime minister would honour verbal agreements to take part in the series. It did not expect him to break the general expectation that candidates who want to be prime minister should be willing to let themselves be subjected to tough interviews.
The corporation originally tried to stand firm on the issue following substantial criticism, last week insisting it would not allow the prime minister to appear on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday until he agreed to the Andrew Neil interview. However, they relented following last week’s London Bridge terror attack.
There is also the impact of days of media coverage being given over to the debate over whether Johnson would subject himself to scrutiny from Neil, rather than being scrutinised for his policies.
Johnson has also cancelled his sitdown ITV interview with Julie Etchingham, despite Corbyn being willing to do the same sitdown. Despite being unable to appear on either programme, the Conservative leader made time to appear on the This Morning sofa on Thursday with Philip Schofield and Holly Willougby for a 12-minute discussion.