In Brief

Boris Johnson’s coal mines joke: is anyone laughing?

PM sparked fierce backlash by suggesting that Margaret Thatcher helped decarbonise the economy by closing coal mines

“Boris Johnson, eh? What’s he like,” asked Katie Edwards in The Independent. When it comes to making ill-judged jokes, the PM just can’t seem to help himself. In his latest, on a visit to a windfarm on the east coast of Scotland last week, he suggested that Margaret Thatcher had helped decarbonise the economy by closing coal mines. Thanks to her, he said, “we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether”. Laughing, he then told reporters: “I thought that would get you going.”

Unsurprisingly, the joke sparked a fierce backlash: Labour called it “shameful”; Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon labelled it “crass and deeply insensitive”. And for people like me, who hail from pit communities that were devastated by Thatcher’s brutal closures, it was a reminder that Johnson cares more about “a cheap laugh” than he does about our pain.

The PM got this one wrong, said Ross Clark in The Daily Telegraph: it wasn’t Thatcher who shut most of Britain’s mines, it was “the prime ministers who came before her”. Labour’s Harold Wilson, in particular, had little time for “dirty” coal. During his eight years as PM, 253 coal mines were closed – far more than the 115 that were shut in Thatcher’s 11 years in office. UK coal production had more than halved from its 1923 peak by the time she came to power. “She merely continued to manage the decline.”

Thatcher was in fact “ahead of her time” on greenhouse gas emissions, said Sarah Vine in The Mail on Sunday. An Oxford-educated chemist, she recognised the problem and helped force the issue onto the global agenda. But “even her most loyal” allies would struggle to spin the environment as her main motive in her battles with the mining unions in the 1980s.

The PM’s quip went down “like a lead balloon” in his party, said Katy Balls in The Spectator. It infuriated MPs in former “red wall” seats, many of which are in former pit towns, and dismayed Scottish Tories, some of whom believe Johnson is so unpopular in Scotland, he risks driving left-wingers who might have voted Scottish Labour into the arms of the SNP. His trip was supposed to boost support for the Union. Instead, it may have further weakened it.

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