Analysis: Boris Johnson May Have Bitten Off More Than He Can Chew With His Channel 4 Red Meat

Growing numbers of Tories are speaking out in opposition to its privatisation.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Andrew Milligan via PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson watchers have seen this playbook many times before.

Whenever things get a little bit sticky for the prime minister, a policy suddenly emerges to tickle the collective tummy of his right-wing backbenchers.

As the Metropolitan Police hand down more fines over partygate, questions about Johnson’s future are once again rearing their head.

And - hey presto - out came the announcement last night that, after years of trying, the government will now press ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4.

It’s a policy which throws some red meat at the PM’s Brexiteer base, who believe the broadcaster should be brought to heel for its supposedly pro-Remain, left-of-centre news coverage.

Of course, the plans have been dressed up in the language of liberation, with culture secretary Nadine Dorries saying the broadcaster needs to be removed from the dead hand of government ownership so it can compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

But other Tories suspect the real motivation is revenge, with DCMS committee chair Julian Knight even suggesting that the announcement was specifically timed to coincide with Channel 4 News going on air.

And this may be where Johnson’s clever wheeze comes unstuck, because growing numbers of Tory MPs - who will be given a vote on the policy when it comes to the Commons - are saying it’s an unnecessary distraction.

On Sky News this morning, former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “I’m not in favour of it because I think that as it stands, Channel 4 provides competition to the BBC on what’s called public service broadcasting — the kinds of programmes that are not commercially viable — and I think it’d be a shame to lose that.”

That came hard on the heels of another ex-cabinet minister, Damian Green, saying: “The sale of Channel 4 is politicians and civil servants thinking they know more about how to run a business than the people who run it. Very unconservative. Mrs Thatcher, who created it, never made that mistake.”

Meanwhile, Tory grandee Sir Peter Bottomley said it was “bad for the diversity of television, bad for viewers and bad for independent producers”.

One former minister told HuffPost UK that Channel 4 privatisation is “a bad idea” and said it was “unlikely to get voted through” by MPs.

Johnson’s 80-seat majority is hefty, but not impregnable, as he found out over Covid passports in December. A rebellion of 40 or so Tories would be enough to derail his plans and leave him with egg on his face.

Acknowledging the Conservative opposition, one government source told HuffPost UK “We’ll obviously get some opponents. There will be a mixture of those who are completely against and others we can work on.

“This isn’t about flogging off Channel 4 because we don’t like it. We think Channel 4 is being held back by its current business model.

“Privatisation will allow it to keep doing the great things it does while bringing in new investment so it can survive in a more competitive market.”

That’s the sales pitch. Johnson better hope that enough of his own MPs are willing to buy it, or else he is heading for an embarrassing defeat.

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