The UK Government has spent the last few months studying the delicate issue of how its ministers should get around the world – and today both the BBC and Sky News are claiming that the recommendation is that taxpayers should cough up for a couple of leased aircraft.
This is delicate because, of course, whatever he does Tony Blair is going to get beaten up by the newspapers. As a story the affair has numerous ingredients much-loved by tabloid editors: it involves unquantifiable but meaty chunks of taxpayers’ money; ministers’ personal physical comfort and convenience is at stake; and it can be accompanied by sexy pictures of aircraft (hard to disapprove of that.) Oh, and the opportunity to once again trot out the tired old joke about Blair Force One is just too good to miss (and the BBC didn’t pass up the opportunity. Neither did Sky, but at least they admitted their embarrassment.).
But it’s ludicrous really. The reality is that Britain’s constitutional elite fly around in less style than just about any of their equivalents in comparable nations.
Queen Elizabeth is privileged to use nothing less than an elderly British Aerospace 146 operated by 32 (The Royal) Squadron, RAF, which the Prime Minister also gets to use and is duly flayed for. Blair and his colleagues more generally use a combination of those aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley 125s that the same squadron also operates, and an assortment of other RAF and commercial airline – normally British Airways – flights.
Putting aside the question of whether and how often government ministers should fly anywhere at all, it’s pretty obvious that this is not a cost-effective way of managing the programe. How likely is it that a combination of the RAF, the Cabinet Office and British Airways will come up with the optimum plan?
Leasing an appropriate number of optimally sized aircraft for this size of operation is eminently sensible. And I say that as a UK taxpayer as well as a Flight journalist.
The really thorny question is which aircraft to use. 32 (The Royal) Sqn still flies thoroughly British types, but unfortunately for Mr Blair it’s been a while since the UK actually produced any appropriate aircraft. (Islander your majesty?)
I suppose the new deal could include an A318, or even A319 at a push. But I suspect a Brazilian or Canadian option may also be on the cards.