Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
Chris Bryant, MP for Rhondda, cheerfully says he was a Foreign Office junior minister “for about 10 minutes”. In fact, the long-serving and well-respected Labor man was under-secretary of state for Europe and Asia for rather longer than that. Anyway, this week I have recalled an event from that part of his career.
“My first trip as a foreign office minister was on easyJet at 6am and we didn’t pay for speedy boarding,” I have tweeted – alongside an article I had written about the recent Australian adventure that the foreign secretary had taken aboard a UK government jet.
I had discovered that Liz Truss had not simply opted for the excellent Qantas scheduled flights that fitted perfectly with her itinerary. Instead she traveled – with 13 staff – aboard a large passenger plane to Sydney and Adelaide.
Many other senior Labor figures have railed against the £500,000 bill that the trip racked up for the taxpayer. I look forward to the Opposition spelling out meticulously its new policy on ministers using public, scheduled transport. Because the record of the last Labor government on using private jets was far from impressive.
“Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and ministerial colleagues were last night accused of using private jets in the Queen’s Flight like a private taxi service” – so The Independent reported in 2006.
The article continued: “The prime minister took trips costing more than £1.2m over four years from 2002 on RAF jets allocated to the Royal Family and government VIPs.”
Downing Street defended Mr Blair’s readiness to use the jets “for security reasons”.
This led to some unusual arrangements. The record showed the Labor prime minister had made more than 30 flights to Teesside airport in order to reach his Sedgefield constituency. Yet the East Coast main railway line was an excellent terrestrial alternative.
While once or twice the Blairs took budget airlines for holiday trips, sometimes they would travel on a taxpayer-funded private flight. For example, over the 2005-6 New Year, the then-prime minister used a 70-seater BAe 146 jet from the Queen’s Flight for a family holiday to Italy and Egypt.
Compared with the Liz Truss trip down under, it was a bargain: £30,800. But hang on: this was a holiday. Downing Street said that the Blairs paid “the equivalent of commercial fares toward the public cost of the flight.”
Not unreasonably, the Opposition was furious. The shadow transport secretary at the time was one Chris Grayling, who later came out of the shadows to run the Department for Transport. He said: “I think most people will be astonished at the way ministers seem to be using the Queen’s Flight as a private taxi service.”
Mr Grayling and I, and possibly you, are absolutely in agreement on one thing: “Ministers will always need to use official aircraft on occasions.”
The UK government can reasonably use private flights for their top people to make journeys where there is no viable scheduled alternative, just as other big organizations do.
You could construct a case to justify Boris Johnson flying from Stansted to Anglesey, as he did for the day on Thursday, because the rail service is currently terrible. But the foreign secretary’s trip would have made perfect sense on Qantas – which, by any measure, is an excellent airline.
The same goes for frequent private flights from London to Brussels which ministers have been making all too frequently for the past quarter-century, even though there has long been a Eurostar train service between the two capitals.
The Independent reported that Gordon Brown had a particular preference for plane over train: “The chancellor, who is known for refusing to spend a night if he can avoid it, has frequently called on the Queen’s Flight service to get him in and out of Brussels in a day.”
It was around this time that Liz Truss – not yet an MP – was writing: “Every public sector worker should feel personal responsibility for the money they spend and the money they save.
“They should spend taxpayers’ money with at least the care they would give to their own. This change of mindset would be reflected in everyday changes such as traveling by economy rather than business class.”
I would not begrudge the foreign secretary business class on the long haul to Australia. But I do begrudge her the extraordinarily expensive and damaging special flight of her.
What is it about political power that goes to the heads of our leaders? And which political party will be first to rule out misuse of private jets in their manifesto? I think there could be some votes in it.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.