Alastair Stewart: Take a pop at Ministers who screw up, but lets not bore over common sense decisions

'Liz Truss was savaged for flying to Australia on a Government leased aircraft rather than a commercial flight'


Last night, the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss came under attack.

Not because Russia continues to mass its forces on Ukraine’s borders, Chinese military aircraft continue to buzz Taiwan, the people of Afghanistan are starving and the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol is on the point of collapse.

She was savaged for flying to Australia on a Government leased aircraft rather than a commercial flight.

It was described as a ‘private jet’ - implying it had been rented for a one off flight - and that the trip was said to have cost £500,000.

The words ‘United Kingdom’ all along the fuselage, and the Union Jack emblazoned across the tail-fin, might have hinted that it wasn’t a private jet but a Government asset.

It is on a long lease from a charter company.

How anyone got to £500k is beyond me.

But facts often get in the way of a good story and given the Government faces no other problems - no party-gate, no investigations, no row over taxation and covid restriction, and more - I guess someone, somewhere needed a story.

By way of back-ground, it was David Cameron who embarked on the policy of leased aircraft and/or converted refuelling tankers - for the use of senior Ministers - and the Royal family - saying it would save about £775,000 a year compared with chartering flights.

Long haul charters cost on average £6,700 per flying hour while using the Voyager aircraft costs £2,000, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Despite all this Ms Truss was pressed on her trip and said :

"I used the Government plane - that is why we have a Government plane: to enable Government ministers to conduct Government business, and that's what I flew to Australia in. Every Government decision is based on value for money.

"We have a Government plane specifically so ministers, like me in my role as Foreign Secretary, can go and do the work overseas, which is ultimately delivering for the British people."

The Foreign Office said the trip was within the rules set by the ministerial code. A spokesman added “using the private jet allowed the trip's delegation to travel together and have private discussions on sensitive security matters, that commercial flights were fully booked, and that using a commercial flight would have separated Ms Truss from her delegation and protection team”.

It also gave Ms Truss the option of returning to the UK early if needed - for a crisis in Northern Ireland - or in Ukraine or anywhere else.

It is pointed out that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was also at the Australia talks but I’ll bet a tin-helmet and an anti-tank weapon that if things suddenly hit the fan in Ukraine, he wouldn’t have been seeking a seat on the next scheduled flight.

He’d have been on the flexible flight offered by Ms Truss’s jet, quicker than you could say ‘scramble’.

The talks, incidentally, were about trade regional security.

Australia is an important ally under the Chinese threat.

It is also an increasing important trade partner, post-Brexit.

Mere details, I know, but there they are.

It is a storm in a team cup.

The Americans don’t go bonkers when the President flies around the world in one of his fleet of mighty Boeings, accompanies by all those Big Beast cars and other accompanying motorcade vehicles.

Germany has just orders here more aircraft to add to its Ministerial squadron and the French fleet comes in three or four different sizes.

They all do it because it makes financial sense, offers flexibility and guarantees security.

So if folk want to have a go, get the facts right and think it through.

I also want the UK and its Government - our nation, our Government - to look good abroad: it is part of the brand.

I want Ministers to be fleet of foot when abroad at a time of crisis, not twiddling their fingers for the next scheduled flight from where ever they are , to where ever they need to be.

I want their top teams - advisors and security to be with them, all the time.

I also quite like the idea that there is room for the press to accompany senior Ministers on such trips - so long as they pay their way!

Finally, by all means take a pop at Ministers who screw up, at a Government under real pressure for glad-handling gatherings whilst others suffered, for promising much but delivering little on some of the big issues of the day.

But lets not bore our viewers, listeners and readers over common sense decision that actually end up saving you, dear tax payer, and me - money!