UK's Johnson under fire over 'crass' coal closure quip

London (AFP) –


Opposition leaders on Friday condemned Prime Minister Boris Johnson as "crass and offensive" for joking that former leader Margaret Thatcher's coal mine closures had given Britain a head start in fighting climate change.

Thatcher, in power from 1979 to 1990, fought a bitter battle with the coal mining industry in the 1980s, delivering its death knell by closing over 100 mines, devastating communities in northern England and South Wales.

A year-long walkout against closure plans by miners in 1984-85 was one of the defining moments of her premiership, eroding union power and triggering her free market reforms.

Johnson made the comments on a visit to an offshore windfarm in Scotland on Thursday, as he talked about the changes in Britain's energy mix.

"Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we're now moving rapidly away from coal altogether," he said.

But the quip risks backfiring with voters in former mining heartlands of northern England, who switched from Labour to his Conservatives in the last general election in 2019, largely over Brexit.

Keir Starmer, Labour's leader in Westminster, said: "Boris Johnson's shameful praising of Margaret Thatcher's closure of the coal mines, brushing off the devastating impact on those communities with a laugh, shows just how out of touch he is with working people."

Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford, of Labour, told BBC radio the comments were "crass and offensive", saying the closures caused "incalculable" damage to local communities.

Johnson failed to meet First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on his two-day visit to Scotland, where feelings still run high against the Tories because of Thatcher's policies.

Under Thatcher, heavy industry and coal mining declined, while Scots widely opposed her introduction of a controversial flat-rate per capita "poll tax" in the late 1990s.

Sturgeon said communities across Scotland were "utterly devastated by Thatcher's destruction of the coal industry".

She has repeatedly criticised Johnson for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic response and his refusal to allow a second referendum on Scottish independence.