Boris Johnson will struggle to get his plans to privatise Channel 4 through parliament after a backlash from within his party, senior Conservatives believe.
The plans to raise £1bn-plus by selling off the state-owned channel sparked furious opposition from people such as Ruth Davidson, the former Scottish Tory leader, and former cabinet ministers Damian Green and Jeremy Hunt.
Senior Tories told the Guardian that Johnson would probably struggle to get his plans through the House of Lords, and could face a revolt in the Commons as well.
The proposal was not in the Conservative party manifesto, making it easier for peers to challenge the legislation necessary to make the sale.
The backlash came after an internal Channel 4 email revealed that the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, was pushing ahead with plans to privatise the channel after 40 years in public ownership.
Davidson led calls for the government to reconsider, saying: “Channel 4 is publicly owned, not publicly funded. It doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. It also, by charter, commissions content but doesn’t make/own its own. It’s one of the reasons we have such a thriving [independent] sector in places like Glasgow. This is the opposite of levelling up.”
Green pointed out the channel was founded by a Conservative government, with part of its remit being to boost Britain’s private sector television sector: “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.”
Julian Knight, the Conservative chair of the culture select committee, said he had concerns privatisation was “being done for revenge” after Channel 4’s critical coverage of Brexit and Johnson. He also said the potential sale proceeds were “irrelevant” in the scale of the national debt but that he would back a sale if it was part of an overhaul of all public service broadcasting.
Jeremy Hunt, a former culture secretary, told Sky News: “I’m not in favour of it because 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 would be a shame to lose that.”
He said he had never considered privatising it when he was culture secretary.
Another Tory who criticised the proposed sale was the father of the house, Peter Bottomley, who said it was “bad for the diversity of television, bad for viewers and bad for independent producers”, adding: “It was considered in the mid-1990s and turned down. It should be rejected now.”
The Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group saw a number of MPs objecting to the sale, saying there was no good reasoning behind it. However, one MP said there were far more either neutral, or backing Dorries, who weighed into the debate to say that one of the reasons for the move was that Channel 4 could not borrow privately.
In the House of Lords, the government faced substantial opposition in an emergency question about the issue, particularly around protecting Channel 4’s news output and foreign ownership.
Asked by Labour’s Alf Dubs if there would be any safeguard against a foreign media company buying Channel 4, culture minister Stephen Parkinson replied that the government “expected a lot of interest from around the world” in the sale.
Former Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell mocked the comparisons between Channel 4 and streaming services: “Netflix is a complete red herring. How many journalists and how many camera crews has Netflix sent to the Ukraine?”
The government hopes to raise about £1bn from the sell-off, making it one of the biggest privatisations since Royal Mail went public a decade ago. Ministers have suggested they could spend the proceeds to boost creative training and independent production companies, essentially funding their levelling up agenda.
The plans have provoked a fierce reaction from the media industry, with prominent broadcasters such as Sir David Attenborough suggesting the government was pursuing an agenda of “shortsighted political and financial attacks” on British public service broadcasters.
Channel 4’s chief executive, Alex Mahon, told staff of the news in an email on Monday night, saying: “We have been informed in the last hour that the government will shortly announce that the secretary of state has decided to proceed with the proposal to privatise Channel 4.”
On Monday evening Dorries tweeted that public ownership was “holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon”. She added: “A change of ownership will give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future.”
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, described the move as “cultural vandalism”. She said: “Selling off Channel 4, which doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny anyway, to what is likely to be a foreign company, is cultural vandalism. It will cost jobs and opportunities in the north and Yorkshire, and hit the wider British creative economy.”