David Cameron announced today that he plans to spend £10 million on a new 'Air Force One' style jet to be used both by himself and other ministers.
The government claims the retrofitted RAF plane will save them money in the long-term. That may well be true if you compare it to the cost of regularly chartering flights from commercial operators. The government currently spends large amounts on chartered flights, including ones they don't even use. In 2012 they wasted over £300,000 in the cost of cancelled government flights alone. And it's not just foreign trips that the government splashes out on. In the last year the government spent over £6 million on chauffeur-driven cars for government ministers.
But is it really necessary for the government, and particularly its more junior members to be travelling around in such grand style, both at home and abroad? And what does it say about the state of the British governing class?
The terrible events of recent weeks will inevitably make such expenditure on private travel easier to justify, but the threat of terror is nothing new. London has been at high risk of terror attack for decades and yet neither the current mayor, nor his predecessor, have ever had their own official car. There was some talk inside City Hall a few years back about purchasing a 'mayormobile' for Boris Johnson, but this was vetoed by the mayor's office.
Instead Boris continues to use only public transport and his own bicycle to get around London as well as regular commercial flights for foreign trips. Even the annual TfL travel card that the mayor and London Assembly members are entitled to has been left unclaimed by both Boris and the vast majority of AMs. Boris could have used the terror threats hanging over London to justify retreating to the plush leather seats of bullet proof Mercedes. That he instead continues to leave himself open to regular hurls of abuse from passing pedestrians, is greatly to his credit and to the benefit of Londoners.
Because while nobody expects David Cameron to hop on the number 11 bus outside Downing Street, or check in on Easyjet to visit Vladimir Putin, there is really no reason why more junior members of the government shouldn't follow the example of Boris and give up their ministerial cars. If the mayor of London feels safe enough riding his bike or jumping on the bus down Whitehall to meet the prime minister, then there's no reason why the business secretary, or the government's 'entrepreneurship tsar' shouldn't do the same.
Public transport has never been a major issue in national politics, for the simple reason that most members of sitting governments never have to bother using it. London's transport network is now world class, but only because it has been run for 15 years by people who regularly use and come into contact with it. If a few more government ministers were made to jump on a bus in their local constituency, we could expect public transport across the country to improve pretty rapidly as well.
Even in less austere times the last Labour government balked at the idea of purchasing a private jet, after it was dubbed "Blair Force One" by the media. However, the purchase of Cameron's £10m plane is unlikely to cause major controversy even if it does come at a time when the government plans to make massive cuts to welfare and public services. Images of world leaders and their private jets have become so ubiquitous in the intervening years that most people will probably grudgingly accept the idea.
But the conventional wisdom on these matters is often wrong. In recent years a consensus has developed in Westminster that MPs should be paid more, despite the fact that they are already easily in the top five per cent of earners. A similar consensus has also developed about ministers and their use of high security private transport.
The terrible events of recent weeks will likely entrench that consensus. But before we accept this latest move towards a British governing class totally shielded from the people they seek to govern, we should stop to ask whether this is really the sort of country we want to live in.
Parliament was originally set up as a place where the public could easily come in and lobby their MPs. Unlike other nations, where leaders live in gilded presidential palaces permanently shut off from the people they are elected to govern, Britain's democracy has always been based on the principle that our politicians should remain both politically and physically close to those they seek to represent.
Little by little that principle has been eroded in recent years, with the purchase of Dave Force One just the latest in a long move away from this very British style of government. However there are signs that this drift could be halted. The election of Jeremy Corbyn means that for the first time in decades, the leader of one of the main two parties can now regularly be spotted on the Tube and on the bus.
Jeremy Corbyn still travels by bus. And if you find him on a bus he might endorse your protest. Lovely. https://t.co/tXOy1Kr1V9— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) October 19, 2015
Whatever you think of either Corbyn or Boris, the fact that they are available to be openly abused or praised by the people they represent on a daily basis, should be applauded.
And it is this model, rather than the sheltered world of private jets and chauffeur-driven Mercedes, that our next generation of politicians should really look to. Terror threats will always exist, but if we allow them to be used as an excuse to cut the governing class off from the governed, it will be greatly to our cost.