Downing St backs down from plans for 'Blair Force One'

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Indy Politics

Downing Street has backed down on its request for a presidential style official plane for Tony Blair - despite the parliamentary intelligence watchdog declarling it was necessary for security reasons.

The Commons Intelligence and Security Committee backed the expenditure of about £80m for "Blair Force One" after the case was made by Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence.

The committee said in its annual report yesterday (with asterisks hiding supposedly security-sensitive matters) "The matter of an aircraft fitted with secure communications equipment for the use of the Prime Minister and other key ministers was raised by the Defence Secretary. ***. During crisis periods, decisions are sometimes required with great urgency***. We are persuaded this expense can be justified."

The £80m would have been needed to fit "Blair Force One" with secure communications and anti-missile defence systems, as well as additions such as sleeping quarters for the PM and his entourage. A Downing Street spokesman said last night: "There are no current plans for a dedicated plane for the Prime Minister."

The spokesman refused to discuss whether the decision had been taken on security, financial or logistical grounds or whether Mr Hoon had discussed the aircraft with Downing Street before raising the matter with the Intelligence and Security Committee.

He also refused to comment on suggestions that the decision to reject the aircraft had been taken to avoid the Prime Minister appearing "presidential".

Successive Conservative and Labour Governments had raised the possibility of a dedicated aircraft for the Prime Minister. But the plans have always stalled for reasons of cost.

Downing Street floated the prospect of such a plane soon after the Labour election victory in 1997. Number 10 confirmed at the time that among proposals considered was sharing an aircraft with the Royal Family to replace the VC10s.

But that plan was jettisoned because the Queen supposedly favoured a small jet such as a Falcon or Gulfstream while Mr Blair wanted a larger aircraft to cater for his entourage and the media.

Ann Taylor, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, said committee members had not discussed the finer points in detail.