Boris Johnson will be remembered as a “disgrace” if he does not intervene to help an ailing giant of the UK bus building industry, a union leader said.
Around 1,200 workers were made redundant as Co Antrim-based Wrightbus went into administration after failed attempts to find a buyer.
It built London’s Routemaster double-decker – dubbed the “Boris Bus” – which was ordered by the Prime Minister when he was mayor and chair of Transport for London, the capital’s public transport operator.
Wrightbus won contracts around the world with its innovative green technology but struggled with cash flow problems and a wider downturn in the industry.
Three or four potential buyers failed to materialise in recent days, a union said.
This is the second major blow to British manufacturing within a week after holiday firm Thomas Cook was liquidated.
Unite the union’s Susan Fitzgerald said: “Boris Johnson was happy to stand in this factory when buses were being named after him.
“He has an opportunity today and in the days ahead to do something decent, to intervene, and it is in his gift to do this and nationalise Wrightbus.
“This workforce needs to be back across the gate producing buses, green alternative transport buses that we need for our society, that are needed for the public transport network.
“He should do that, and if he does not that is what he will be remembered for, a disgrace, he has a chance to do something good here.”
Workers wheeled their tools from the factory on Wednesday afternoon and the gates were closed behind them.
Police patrolled nearby as dozens massed in the car park and there was palpable anger and plans for a protest on Sunday.
Former employees described “silence” in the room as they were told the news during mass meetings with administrators and management on Wednesday morning.
Stephen Wright, 47, a production manager from Ballymena, said it was a sombre atmosphere as around 3,000 direct and indirect jobs were put at risk.
“It is a very close-knit company and a lot of people were there a long time.
“A lot of good friendships and relationships are coming to an end, so it is a sad day.”
Norman Stephens, a paint shop quality inspector, has worked for Wrightbus for 30 years.
He expressed sympathy for company founder Sir William Wright, who had worked hard to build up what was once one of Northern Ireland’s most successful companies.
Mr Stephens said: “He built it from nothing with his father and now it has went to the dogs.”
He asked: “Who is going to employ a 62-year-old man?
“I have nothing now, that is it.”
Phil McIlvenna, 37, a coach builder with a wife and seven-month-old child, spent decades at the site.
He said: “All along you have your hopes built up, you are optimistic, you are not making other plans based on what they have told you and now you are going to have one and a half thousand people hitting the jobs and benefits office.”
Unite regional secretary Jackie Pollock said it is a workforce at the cutting edge of technological advancements in the design and supply of green public transport.
“Just three months ago, Boris Johnson gave assurances that he ‘will do everything we can to ensure the future of that great UK company’,” she said.
“He has a chance today to do something decent.”
Administrators Michael Magnay and Peter Allen, from Deloitte, said the various Wrightbus companies had around 1,250 employees and the lack of a buyer “unfortunately means approximately 1,200 redundancies are being made today”.
Mr Magnay said: “It is bitterly disappointing for all concerned that despite extensive efforts over recent months it has not been possible to find a buyer who wanted to maintain the business as a going concern.”
Wrightbus has been a hugely profitable company in the past and based its business model on producing low-emission vehicles.
When Mr Johnson was mayor he announced a lucrative order to produce London’s distinctive red double-decker, an updated version of the original Routemaster.
Critics at the time said the new “Boris buses” were too expensive and estimated that the first eight had cost £1.4 million each to design and build.
There were also complaints that the new Routemasters, which were longer and heavier than other models, were unbearably hot, with later batches altered to provide windows.
Mr Johnson visited Wrightbus, whose owner backs Leave and supports the PM’s DUP allies, during the EU referendum campaign in February 2016.