There is a real political problem for the Prime Minister, simultaneously committed both to addressing the concerns of such ‘left-behind’ parts of the country and to move Britain away from the ‘high-carbon’ manufacturing methods that have been at the heart of the Northern and Midlands economy.
Political civil war has broken out in the Johnson family — and not for the first time.
The Prime Minister’s father, 80-year-old Stanley, has denounced the Government’s decision not to block the construction of Woodhouse Colliery, Britain’s first new deep coal mine in over 30 years.
Last week, Johnson Sr pronounced this to be ‘a massive mistake . . . How can we ask other countries to bring in their climate change reduction programmes when we are reopening the whole coal argument here?’
Stanley, who in 2019 praised the Extinction Rebellion protesters then bringing the centre of London to a standstill, was speaking in his capacity as ‘international ambassador of the Conservative Environment Network’, the role in which he will be attending the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November.
In fact, the UK has been assiduous in eliminating coal from domestically produced energy.
But this new mine — in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland — is not for ‘thermal’ use in power stations. It is coking coal, for indispensable use in the blast furnaces of what remains of the British steel industry.
One tonne of such coal is required for the production of every 1.25 tonnes of steel — and, as yet, there is no economically viable alternative (recycling scrap steel is hardly a complete answer).
The Prime Minister has declared his commitment to making Britain ‘the Saudi Arabia’ of wind power, as part of the plan to make our entire electricity network ‘net-zero carbon’ by 2050.
This will cost a stupefying £160 billion a year over the next 30 years, according to the National Grid.
Vast numbers of new wind turbines will be needed for this. And what will they be made of? Yes, steel. So the question is whether we wish to make as much as possible — or indeed any — of that steel in the UK. If we do, then coking coal is required.
Next question: where should that coal come from? Recently, almost 90 per cent of the coal we burn here has been imported, almost double the proportion of only a few years ago.
It should be obvious that importing the stuff from our two biggest sources — Russia and, especially, Australia — involves the emission of much more CO2 because of that generated in transporting the excavated minerals from the other end of the planet.
These points were emphatically made by the mayor of Copeland, Mike Starkie, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He was pitched against Dr James Hansen, a very grand American scientist, frequently described as ‘the father of climate change awareness’.
Last week, Dr Hansen published an open letter to Boris Johnson declaring the Copeland mine would guarantee the PM ‘ignominy and humiliation [for] contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature’.
The mayor of Copeland was not impressed by this intervention (which was backed by sundry other climate change campaigners, including, inevitably, Greta Thunberg).
‘He’s not even in this country,’ said Mr Starkie. ‘His views are completely irrelevant . . . For any new green sources of energy, we’re going to need steel — and lots of it. It is better it is made here, in a modern mine, than shipping it from around the world.’
Obviously, Mr Starkie is delighted that the Copeland mine will generate at least 500 jobs in a part of the country that has suffered more than most from deindustrialisation.
That was also the local council’s attitude: its members — Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat — voted unanimously for the development.