Johnson’s coalmine quip shows he thinks the climate crisis is a joke
The prime minister was asked about his plans for transitioning away from fossil fuels. He chose to distract, not answer
Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Many people working in politics and the media openly discuss the fact that Boris Johnson’s gaffes are entirely calculated. I once met someone who used to work for him and they told me that before he appears in the media, Johnson ruffles his hair to ensure he appears more dishevelled than he actually is.
This ruse has been useful to our prime minister throughout his political career. It has helped him to climb the greasy pole without facing any consequences for accusations of serial lying, allegations of bigotry or his involvement in the planned assault of a journalist. And it is what we must bear in mind when we consider his latest comments on the closure of British coal mines.
When pressed as to whether he would set a firm deadline for the transition away from fossil fuels, Johnson 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, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.” This is the Johnson administration’s strategy in a nutshell. Caught with your metaphorical pants down? Simply pick a fight with the left and hope that the ensuing anger will distract your critics long enough for you to get away with it. A couple of months ago, the government put this strategy into practice by publishing a report whose chair claimed there was no evidence of institutional racism in Britain. Today it’s the trade unions’ turn to be provoked.
I’m not going to use this column to argue that what Thatcher did to mining communities in the 1980s was inevitable, or that she was motivated to act out of environmental concerns, because those are such embarrassingly unfounded arguments that it would be insulting to debate them. Instead I would simply draw attention to the question Johnson was asked before he made his asinine remark: has he set a firm deadline for transitioning away from fossil fuels?
Now why do you suppose such a question would lead the prime minister to insult thousands of families in this country, many of them living in communities that voted Conservative at the last election? I’d wager his crude little outburst was a deliberate distraction from the fact that an honest answer would have involved admitting that no, there is no firm deadline. In fact, there isn’t anything – because the government scrapped its own industrial strategy a couple of months ago and replaced it with a “Plan for Growth”, which was condemned by the business, energy and industrial strategy committee as “short-termist, unclear and unwelcome” and “nothing more than a list of existing policy commitments, many of which are hopelessly delayed”. Johnson might have also admitted that his government cut the green homes grant, which – according to the TUC – has taken a “wrecking ball” to green jobs in North West England.
If you’re someone whose home is prone to flooding, or you’re a fossil-fuel worker anxious about your livelihood, this is valuable information because it reveals that the government ostensibly has no interest in addressing climate breakdown, much less addressing it in such a way that working-class people are actually protected in the transition to renewables. If we let this government lead the response to the climate crisis we will see the 1980s happening all over again, where the only beneficiaries of a green transition will be a handful of private companies.
We need to join together, each and every one of us, to make sure that no worker or trade union is left behind in a green transition. We need to hold this government to account and ignore its petty distractions. And when the next general election comes around, we need to vote these charlatans out.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan is director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies