Cameron?s 60 private flights from business leaders

Author: By Jane Merrick, Political Editor

The Conservative leader has accepted more than 60 flights by luxury plane and helicopter from 10 industrialists and plutocrats with a combined fortune of £3bn, figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal.

Many of the flights were for short trips in the UK that could have been easily made by road or rail, although together the air mileage would have taken Mr Cameron to Sydney and back ? casting his much-vaunted commitment to the environment in a poor light.

They also undermined Mr Cameron’s attempts to rebrand the Tories and shake off the perception that it is heavily dependent on a small band of the super-rich. One of the millionaire businessmen, the steel industrialist Andrew Cook, told the IoS yesterday how he helped to shape Mr Cameron’s energy policy.

The revelations capped a difficult week for Mr Cameron in which Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan complained that MPs were forced to live on “rations” and Tory MEP Daniel Hannan attacked the NHS as a “failure”. Mr Cameron slapped down both men but did not formally discipline them.

Gordon Brown, on holiday in the Lake District, sought to exploit the Tory difficulties by effectively firing the starting gun on the election campaign: he said Labour would put the NHS centre stage in the battle to win a fourth term.

Last week’s events, in which Mr Cameron and the Tory leadership were apparently blindsided by an unprecedented internet campaign in defence of the NHS and which coincided with Peter Mandelson “minding the shop” in Downing Street, were being seen as a dress rehearsal for an election.

The unexpectedly turbulent few days are all the more difficult for the Tory leader because he has put the NHS and the environment at the heart of his project to rebrand the Conservative Party. He has also led the way on reforming the much-derided parliamentary expenses system.

The ongoing storm over the Tories’ new alliance with the right-wing Polish Law and Justice Party and their leader in the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski, also continues to trouble Tory strategists.

While Labour is still odds-on to lose when polling day comes, the “perfect storm” for the Tories gave Labour’s supporters a glimmer of hope that they stand a fighting chance of avoiding a landslide defeat.

In the Register of Interests, Mr Cameron lists only the names of the donors who pay for his flights, but not the details of every trip. The detailed list, which he has submitted to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and has been obtained by the IoS, shows 60 flights since he became leader in December 2005.

Calculations by this newspaper reveal that he has flown a total of 20,454 miles, creating 9.6 tons in carbon emissions. The figures do not take into account free travel provided by the billionaire Tory financial backer Lord Ashcroft, who leaves his private jet at the disposal of Mr Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet. A spokeswoman for Mr Cameron said yesterday: “He is totally committed to the environment. All flights are carbon offset and he tries to avoid flying where possible.”

Mr Brown yesterday wrote an open letter to the tens of thousands who backed the #welovethenhs campaign on Twitter, sparked in response to Republican attacks on President Obama’s healthcare reforms but used as a focus for anger about Daniel Hannan’s condemnation of the British health service. Downing Street let it be known that the Prime Minister was putting the NHS at the centre of Labour’s election campaign ? expected in spring next year.

The Prime Minister said: “It is understandable that the Conservative leadership have tried to distance themselves from those in Tory ranks who criticise the NHS. But the reason why their comments have generated so much anger is that they spoke to a larger truth. That truth is that there are two Tory faces on the NHS.

“Despite all their talk of reform, the Conservatives still put special interests before patients’ interests.”

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