Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for remarks in which he praised Margaret Thatcher’s mine closures despite an intense public backlash.
The prime minister’s official spokesman would only say that Johnson, who made the remarks on a visit to Scotland, recognised the “huge impact and pain closing coal mines had in communities across the UK”.
“This government has an ambitious plan to tackle the critical issue of climate change, which includes reducing reliance on coal and other non-renewable energy sources,” he continued.
“During the visit the prime minister pointed to the huge progress already made in the UK, transitioning away from coal and towards cleaner forms of energy, and our commitment to supporting people and industries on that transition, including through initiatives like the North Sea transition deal.”
Johnson caused fury north of the border for praising the unpopular former late prime minister by suggesting she had accelerated Britain’s move away from coal power and towards greener energy by shutting down mines across the UK.
Labour leader Keir Starmer called the comments a “slap in the face for communities still suffering from the devastating effects of Margaret Thatcher’s callous actions”.
Mine closures in Scotland and parts of England and Wales cast a long shadow over former mining communities and was one of the main reasons why the Conservative brand was toxic for decades.
Last summer a report found that Scotland’s former mining communities were still struggling with a lack of education and job opportunities nearly two decades on from the last deep mine closure.
But on a trip to a giant wind farm off the coast of Scotland’s north east on Thursday, Johnson said the move from an oil-based economy to a green one needed to be “smooth and sensible” and that contracts that had already been signed for work in the North Sea “should not just be ripped up”.
Asked how quickly the UK could move from North Sea to green technology, the prime minister replied: “Look at what we’ve done already. We’ve transitioned away from coal in my lifetime.
“Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country [he then laughs], we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.”
After the briefing for the Scottish media, the PM then joked: “I thought that would get you going.”
In 2019 Johnson repaired some of the damage with former mining communities when swathes of the Red Wall in northern England voted for his party for the first time.
Starmer urged the prime minister to apologise for the remarks, saying he had “shown his true colours yet again”.
“These communities contributed so much to the success of our country, and then were abandoned,” he said.
“The Tories didn’t care then, and they don’t care now. For Boris Johnson to treat the pain and suffering caused to our coalfield communities as a punchline shows just how out of touch with working people he is.
“The Prime Minister must apologise immediately.”