LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson has methodically shielded himself from media scrutiny during his election campaign — a strategy that seems to have paid off, at least judging by the clear lead his Conservative Party has maintained over the Labour Party throughout the five weeks of the campaign.
But Mr. Johnson’s apparent decision to reject a one-on-one TV interview with a famously pugnacious BBC interviewer, Andrew Neil, has exploded as an issue in the final days of the campaign, with Mr. Neil all but accusing Mr. Johnson of cowardice.
Speaking directly to the camera on his program Thursday evening, Mr. Neil said: “The prime minister of our nation will, at times, have to stand up to President Trump, President Putin, President Xi of China. So it was surely not expecting too much that he spend half an hour standing up to me.”
As if anticipating that Mr. Johnson was not going to change his mind, Mr. Neil said the theme of his questions would have been about 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.”
“It is, of course, relevant to what he is promising us all now,” Mr. Neil said, as he hunched characteristically in his chair.
The video of Mr. Neil’s challenge immediately spread widely on social media and has taken over a campaign that Mr. Johnson had hoped to keep rigorously focused on his promise to “Get Brexit done.”
Mr. Johnson has not formally ruled out an appearance on Mr. Neil’s program. But his staff has not agreed on a date with the BBC, and with Election Day next Thursday, time is running out.
Mr. Neil, a bluff, burly Scotsman who once edited The Sunday Times of London, is known for his remorseless dissection of politicians and other public figures. An interrogation by him has become a rite of passage for British politicians.
But few emerge from the experience unscathed. Mr. Neil’s recent interview with the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was widely judged to be a disaster for Mr. Corbyn after he declined four times to apologize for allegations of deep-rooted anti-Semitism in his party.
Mr. Neil’s interviews are considered so potentially damaging that Labour officials have told British media outlets that Mr. Corbyn agreed to sit for him only after assurances from the BBC that Mr. Johnson would do the same.
In response, Rob Burley, the BBC’s editor of live political programs, posted on Twitter that “at no stage did we tell any other party that a date for Boris Johnson was confirmed, whatever you may have read.”
Experts on the British media said Mr. Johnson faced a complex calculus in deciding whether to rebuff Mr. Neil: his half-hour-long program is popular among older viewers, many of whom naturally vote for the Tories. But Mr. Neil’s challenge to the prime minister was a social-media sensation with younger voters.
“He may have stopped himself being humiliated with the older audience,” said Meera Selva, the director of the journalism fellowship program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “But online, it’s being played that he’s a coward.”