Arron Banks has defended his widely-criticised tweet about teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, saying his post was “a joke”.

The Brexit-backing businessman initially tweeted: “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August.”

His remarks were in response to a post about the 16-year-old’s ongoing transatlantic voyage in a racing yacht.

It sparked a negative reaction from other Twitter users, who called the Leave.EU founder “vile”, and reminded him of Thunberg’s age.

One Twitter user, @smilinglaura, said: “Veiled death threats towards a 16-year-old. What a vile individual.”

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Another user, Ian Maher, said: “You should be ashamed. But that presupposes a moral compass.”

British actress Amanda Abbington also joined the criticism, saying: “If you are a grown up, fully-fledged adult and you are mocking this young girl for trying to save the planet then I feel genuinely sorry for you.”

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Labour MP David Lammy described the post as “nasty, wicked” and “evil”.

He added: “And terribly sad this man has bankrolled the peril facing our country.”

In response, Mr Banks said his comment was “a joke”, adding that “lefties have no sense of humour”.

He wrote: “Obviously I don’t hope she encounters a freak yachting accident! I just enjoy watching the ludicrous tweeter mob following the next outrage.”

The teenage activist is currently in the early stages of a two-week Atlantic crossing in a carbon-neutral racing yacht.

She set sail from Plymouth on Wednesday with her final destination set for New York, where she is due to attend the UN Climate Action Summit.

The teenager has ditched more conventional modes of transport in favour of the racing yacht to make the transatlantic voyage without emitting greenhouse gas emissions.

Thunberg’s activism, which includes inspiring a series of “school strikes”, has created a youth protest movement around the world consisting of those demanding more be done to combat climate change.