I'm Dave. Fly me: Private flights revelations are latest blow
The Tories have had a difficult week after NHS gaffes and Alan Duncan's outburst over MPs' expenses. Jane Merrick and Alex Steger report
Sunday 16 August 2009
One of the 10 multi-millionaire businessmen regularly funding David Cameron's private flights has boasted of how he helped to shape the Conservative Party's energy policy.
The Tory leader has used the personal plane of Yorkshire steel magnate Andrew Cook 10 times in the past two years, including six occasions in the month before June's local and European elections. Mr Cook's firm, William Cook Holdings, makes equipment for high-speed rail travel, which is one of the most prominent policies of a future Tory government.
The industrialist also bankrolled an independent policy paper on energy in the UK a year ago, which called for carbon capture and storage, tidal power and reform of the climate change levy.
All three policies were at the centre of a Tory energy paper published in January this year and are expected in a Conservative Green Paper next month.
Mr Cook is among 10 rich businessmen with a combined fortune of £3bn who provided 60 flights by private jet and helicopter totalling more than 20,000 miles – the equivalent of a return flight from London to Sydney. The revelation gave the impression – together with the row over Alan Duncan's complaint about MPs' "rations" and MEP Daniel Hannan's attack on the NHS – that Mr Cameron is struggling to throw off the old image of the Tories as the "nasty party" with close links to the super-rich. Mr Cook, who is worth £80m, told The Independent on Sunday that he had "expressly" told senior Tories two years ago they needed a coherent energy policy. While tidal power and carbon capture and storage are backed by environmentalists, the suggestion that a future Tory government's policies are being shaped by rich donors will cause concern in some quarters.
In an email to the IoS, Mr Cook wrote: "My experience as an industrialist in an energy intensive industry has given me a certain special knowledge of energy matters. I am a wealthy man and I support David Cameron and the Conservative Party. This is why I give them money and lend him my plane to travel around the country. My express words to them when I commissioned the policy were: 'You need an energy policy because the lights will start going out in five years and this will be on your watch.' That was nearly two years ago."
Mr Cook denied there was a commercial motive behind his commissioning of the policy paper, entitled A Pragmatic Energy Policy for the UK. He added: "Wholesale adoption of the policy would not have any particular benefit in the sense of the additional orders [to my company]. However, it is certainly true that power cuts arising from the UK not having enough electricity would be most damaging for my business, as they would be for all the remaining manufacturing industries in the UK and for the economy in general."
Within months of becoming Tory leader, Mr Cameron launched a bold "Vote Blue, Go Green" strategy which dismayed his party's traditionalists but won crucial support from the centre ground and helped the Conservatives on the road back to power.
However, the use of high-polluting jets and helicopters for trips around the UK undermines his claims to be committed to the environment.
Mr Cameron accepted 10 flights from Sir Anthony Bamford, the head of JCB, 14 from Lord Harris, the chairman of Carpetright, and 16 from Henry Lawson, the multimillionaire businessman who runs an aviation company.
There were questions why the full list was not widely available on the MPs' Register of Interests.
Just three are listed in detail on the public register: last summer, Mr Cameron accepted a flight from PR chief Matthew Freud to Turkey and Greece so he could join Mr Freud's father-in-law Rupert Murdoch for drinks on board his yacht. Also listed are a helicopter flight paid for by co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse, David Ross, from London to West Yorkshire and back, and a private plane from Glasgow to Gatwick, funded by Malcolm Scott, Treasurer of the Scottish Conservative Party, who also donated £347,624 to the Tories last year and three years ago donated a week's cruising in a yacht in Thailand.
A spokeswoman for Mr Cameron insisted that all flights had been carbon offset and that he avoided plane travel where possible.
But Labour MP Khalid Mahmood said: "Once again we see both sides of David Cameron's Tories. They preach green to voters but fly polluter class in private jets owned by rich industrialists. They show one face to voters and the other to their big funders. If a Shadow Cabinet colleague had embarrassed his party in this way, David Cameron's spin operation would have publicly rebuked them, but because it is Cameron himself enjoying such luxury, there is silence."
The Tory leader was boarding a more proletarian form of transport when his summer holiday in Brittany came to an abrupt end last week. Mr Cameron was embarking on the cross-Channel ferry in France on Wednesday when he learnt of the news that Alan Duncan, the gaffe-prone shadow Leader of the Commons, had been secretly filmed complaining that MPs were living on "rations" and were treated like "shit". Mr Duncan's remarks sparked anger, yet he was only reprimanded, and not sacked, by Mr Cameron – 24 hours after the story broke.
Also on Wednesday, a campaign to stand up for the NHS after attacks by the US Republican right and the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan was beginning on Twitter. The #welovethenhs campaign had hundreds of supporters by Wednesday lunchtime – in particular, Labour MPs and activists, who seized on Mr Hannan's role as evidence that the Tories were planning to dismantle the principles of the NHS.
Yet it took 36 hours for Mr Cameron to issue a statement, on Thursday evening, insisting he was "100 per cent" committed to the NHS, suggesting that the normally PR-savvy Tory leadership had been caught off guard by the Twitter campaign. It was not until Friday morning that Mr Cameron slapped down Mr Hannan, a right-wing Eurosceptic, as "eccentric".
Some Tory MPs were alarmed that, even though Mr Cameron had been on holiday for the first half of the week, there had been a "perfect storm" of events that had made the Conservative leader look blindsided.
By contrast, Gordon Brown had enjoyed his first good week for months – and to many Labour insiders it seemed more than coincidence that it had coincided with Peter Mandelson taking charge of the country.
Mr Cameron will attempt to get back on to the front foot with an "in conversation" event on the economy on Tuesday. Mr Brown's leadership troubles are far from over. Even so, at 9pm on Friday, Sarah Brown revealed on Twitter: "Just had wonderful holiday in Lake District – fun, healthy, hearty, hospitable time and lucky with the weather."
The week that was
With David Cameron on holiday with his family in Brittany, George Osborne (right) is in charge of the Tory party. At the same time, his old foe Lord Mandelson takes charge of running Britain – with the claim that he is now a "kindly pussycat".
Mr Osborne delivers a speech claiming the Tories are the progressive force in British politics. Reports emerge of US Republicans attacking the NHS as part of their opposition to President Obama's healthcare reforms.
Lord Mandelson savages Mr Osborne's speech as "political cross-dressing". The Independent reveals that Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP, has been on Fox News in the US to denounce the NHS as a "failure" he "wouldn't wish on anybody". The story is picked up on Twitter, with a #welovethenhs campaign seized on by Labour supporters. Meanwhile, secret footage is broadcast of Alan Duncan, shadow Leader of the Commons, saying MPs are forced to live on "rations". Mr Cameron learns about the Duncan episode as he boards the cross-Channel ferry to return home.
Thousands join the NHS Twitter campaign. Sarah Brown says she loves the health service "more than words can say", while the Prime Minister says it makes the difference "between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death". Labour claims Mr Hannan's comments echo those of mainstream Tories. Mr Cameron uses a TV broadcast to reprimand Mr Duncan over his gaffe. He later issues a letter to activists saying the Tories are "100 per cent committed" to the NHS, but does not condemn Mr Hannan.
The Tory MEP Roger Helmer, who it emerged last week claimed homophobia does not exist, backs Mr Hannan's comments. Mr Cameron calls Mr Hannan "eccentric" and says that his views are not shared by the Tory leadership.
Lord Mandelson reveals in a newspaper interview how Mr Osborne, in Corfu last year, confessed to having "got away with" a speech on the Tories and fairness. Mr Brown says he will make the NHS the centrepiece of the next election campaign.
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