A row has broken out over the television debates ahead of the EU referendum, as the official leave campaign threatened to take ITV to court for scheduling a programme in which David Cameron and Nigel Farage represent opposing sides of the argument.
The ITV show is one of two programmes in a question and answer format the prime minister has agreed to take part in.
However, in a rerun of his 2015 general election strategy, he wishes to avoid any head-to-head live debate with a major opponent.
The announcement of the hour-long live programme, in which Cameron and the Ukip leader will in turn answer questions from a studio audience 16 days before the 23 June poll, has reignited divisions in the Brexit campaign – with Vote Leave crying foul of the role being given to the polarising figure of Farage.
Describing the move as an “outrage”, a Vote Leave source claimed ITV had admitted to the campaign that the only reason Farage was chosen for the show was to secure the prime minister’s attendance. Cameron is understood to be keen to avoid any “blue on blue” contests with fellow Tories.
“They are allowing No 10 to choose their opposition,” the source said, adding that the campaign was to meet ITV representatives to discuss the matter on Thursday.
Accusing the “the establishment” of fixing the debates to shut out the official campaign, a senior Vote Leave source also took aim at one of ITV’s most prominent journalists, adding: “ITV is led by people like Robert Peston who campaigned for Britain to join the euro.
In an apparent threat of retribution down the line, the source added: “ITV has effectively joined the official in campaign and there will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”
ITV justified its decision with reference to Ukip’s third place finish in the general election, when the party polled 3.9m votes.
However, the move comes against the backdrop of an apparent change in the position of Johnson who, after originally saying he would not take part in “loads of TV debates” with other members of his party, indicated in an interview with the Spectator this week that he would be up for debating anyone, including Cameron.
The former London mayor is expected to be among key figures who will appear two days later, on 9 June, in ITV’s other major live referendum programme.
Cameron’s appearance, in what ITV are calling Cameron and Farage Live: the EU Referendum, will be preceded during the previous week by his participation in an hour-long Sky News programme in which he will face questions from the channel’s political editor, Faisal Islam, and a studio audience.
A later Sky programme will see questions posed to Gove, the justice secretary, who is among those spearheading the Vote Leave campaign.
The BBC announced in February that it will air three major debates in the run-up to the referendum, including a major live event at Wembley Arena on 21 June, although Downing Street has said Cameron has not taken any decision as to whether he will appear in any of them. Discussions are ongoing, according to the BBC.
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