Leading article: Flying the flag

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That the Prime Minister's staff, if not the man himself, have long envied the official planes of other leaders is one of the worst-kept secrets of the Blair era. So news that two dedicated aircraft are to be leased for official use should hardly come as a surprise. That there will be two planes, for the use of both the Queen and the Prime Minister, was a shrewd diplomatic touch. The timing, on the other hand, on an England match day, had more than a whiff of "a good day to bury bad news".

Why be so shy about it? If it is demonstrated that the new planes will be more cost-effective and not just more comfortable and more prestigious than the previous, very British make-do arrangements, there should be nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, it might be said that an official plane in the national livery with secure communications is part and parcel of leadership in this jet-setting age. For Mr Blair to arrive in Brussels, as he did last week, in a plane with the Austrian livery might suggest an admirably open attitude to European sharing, but it does little for national dignity.

If, as it appears, the planes will go into service only after Mr Blair leaves office, this makes it less likely that UK One, or whatever it is to be called, will be perpetually scolded as Blair Force One. But some of the criticisms voiced yesterday are valid. Why is the flag not to be flown on a plane manufactured in Europe? Will a dedicated plane encourage official flying, when the use of a hotline might often be as effective and more environmentally responsible? It is right that MPs voiced these criticisms. They must keep the project under close scrutiny.