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Helicopter Cash: Rishi Sunak’s Reliance on Taxpayer-Funded Air Travel Exposed – and the Conservative Donors who Fund his Trips and Benefit From Huge Government Contracts 

The Prime Minister’s penchant for air travel dwarfs that of his predecessors flies in the face of the Government’s net zero pledges and comes days after his D-Day dodging shame

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has spent over £1.4 million of taxpayers’ money on foreign air travel. Photo: Imageplotter / Alamy

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spent over £1.4 million of taxpayers’ money on foreign air travel using private planes between taking office on 25 October 2022 and 31 December 2023, according to the Government’s most recent figures.

That total of £1,409,961 spent on official trips to places like Rome, Dubai and Washington includes over £1,284,000 on a UK Government-funded Airbus A321 aircraft and over £125,000 for RAF transport.   

The Government has declined to release official costs of any of the Prime Minister’s UK flights on private taxpayer-funded aircraft, citing reasons of national security. But figures are available for some of Sunak’s UK air travel paid for by Conservative donors. They reveal that in the eight months from April to November 2023 Conservative benefactors gave over £101,000 to provide private plane and helicopter trips within the UK, often when Sunak was on party business. 

Theresa May took one flight every 20 days during her time as Prime Minister. Sunak took one every eight days. Photo: UPI/ Alamy

Sunak appears to be the real frequent-flyer amongst recent Conservative Prime Ministers. Figures are only available for his first six months (187 days) in office between October 2022 and April 2023, and they show that he took a total of 23 domestic flights on aircraft provided by the RAF at public expense, an average of one every eight days. That compares with Liz Truss, who took an average of one flight every 12 days in her short time as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson who took one flight every 20 days, although his travel was restricted by Covid, and Theresa May who took one flight for every 13 days of her Premiership. 

The Cabinet Office declined to update those figures for Sunak’s private air journeys since April 2023, citing national security.  

The number and frequency of publicly-funded air journeys since Sunak became Prime Minister in October 2022 has raised questions about the amount of money spent, the environmental impact, and his apparent reluctance to consider alternative public transport options. The numerous donor-funded trips have raised additional questions, especially since it has emerged that some of the benefactors have been awarded significant Government contracts, while others have been the subject of public controversy. 


Flights of Fancy and Concern

One of Sunak’s taxpayer-funded domestic flights was to his home town of Southampton on 8 May 2023, where he visited a local pharmacy to launch a new scheme to free up GP appointments by allowing pharmacists to write prescriptions for common illnesses.  His decision to take a helicopter meant a cost to the public purse of thousands of pounds for a journey that could have taken less than 90 minutes on the train and cost around £120 return, even for a first-class ticket. 

Jetting around the country on taxpayers’ money like an A-list celeb

Labour on Sunak’s frequent flying

Government records describe the official subject of the visit as “health,” but there was slightly more to it than that. Sunak was widely reported to have told receptionists at the pharmacy that he was going to visit his family in Southampton later.  The government’s own records tend to support this, since they show that he made further health-related constituency visits in the Southampton area the following day.

At the time, Labour accused the Prime Minister of  “jetting around the country on taxpayers’ money like an A-list celeb … No politician should be above using public transport to get around the country – especially for a journey that would take little more than an hour.”  Downing St officials responded that, “obviously, there’s a lot of pressure on his time … so sometimes being able to get to and from places quickly is the best use of his time.”  

Other private flights have caused even more concern.  On 19 January 2023, Sunak used an official RAF plane to visit three different constituencies in one day. In the first, Bexleyheath and Crayford in Kent, the subject was listed in official records as “police”. Then there was a quick stop-over in Morecambe to celebrate the awarding of £50 million in levelling-up funding for a new Eden project. Finally, he dropped in on Hartlepool to inspect the new Northern Film and TV studios which were being opened as part of a further £17 million levelling-up investment.  

Sunak has been accused of “jetting around the country on taxpayers’ money like an A-list celeb”. Photo: Colin Fisher / Alamy

When challenged by the press about his decision to ignore public transport in favour of private air travel Sunak responded airily, saying: “I travel around so I can do lots of things in one day, I’m not travelling around just for my own enjoyment.” Then, perhaps realising the potential for that off-the-cuff defence to land badly with the people of down-at-heel Morecambe, he hastily added, “although this is very enjoyable, of course.”

But the locations he chose were also of great significance in party-political terms. Two of the visits offered a chance to highlight the Government’s much-criticised levelling-up policy, and all are key constituencies in the current election campaign. Bexleyheath and Morecambe are both the kind of marginal Conservative seats that Sunak will have to work hard to defend against Labour’s persistent national poll lead. Hartlepool was only captured from Labour in a by-election in 2021 and is now a key Opposition target. 

Private plane trips like these have also raised concerns about Sunak’s commitment to net zero. This, after all, is a government that, for all its weakening of recent climate change commitments, still says it intends to hit net zero by 2050.

Has seemingly abandoned the government’s environmental responsibilities while throwing taxpayer money away so he can travel in luxury

Labour on Sunak

A report by the green think-tank Transport and Environment in May 2021 found that private aircraft are up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial flights, and around 50 times more polluting than trains. 

Labour argues that the Prime Minister “has seemingly abandoned the government’s environmental responsibilities while throwing taxpayer money away so he can travel in luxury …This is just another example of him being wildly out of touch with the British people.”  The Government insists that its commitment to carbon-reduction and to net zero remains firm. 


Rishi’s Flights were Grounded – Temporarily

By the summer of 2023, after less than a year in office, Sunak’s use of private flights was attracting criticism not just from the Labour Party, but also from both the press and the public. That July, the then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced that he was cancelling the RAF’s contract to provide helicopter transport for senior government ministers with an estimated saving of around £40 million over five years.   

Luckily for Sunak, however, help was soon at hand. In August 2023 Wallace stepped down at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and was replaced by Grant Shapps, a man who had spent most of the previous decade hot-desking his way around Whitehall in a dizzying succession of Cabinet jobs. One of Shapps’ first decisions was to reinstate the RAF contract, although it later transpired that he took that action only after Sunak intervened.  This was confirmed in the Autumn/Winter edition of the RAF’s house journal Northolt Approach under the slightly misleading headline of “A109 Capability Extension”.

Sunak with Grant Shapps who reinstated the RAF contract to provide helicopter transport for senior government ministers which previously cost £40 million over five years.  Photo: Xinhua / Alamy

Squadron Leader Tom Woods noted that the contract u-turn was “at the request of the Prime Minister”, and the decision meant that there was “frenetic activity amongst HQ Air Command, Defence Equipment and Support, and frontline operators” to ensure that the arrangement could continue uninterrupted.  All of this at a time of limited defence budgets, squeezed even tighter by the UK’s supply of expensive weapons to fight the war in Ukraine.  

After the reprieve granted by Shapps, the Prime Minister was soon at it again, and his publicly financed flights included further trips to politically sensitive constituencies. On 18 October 2023 he took an official helicopter for a journey of less than 60 miles to Clacton, once again to promote government levelling-up projects. 

Clacton has long been a problem constituency for the Conservatives. Few will have forgotten that in August 2014 the local MP Douglas Carswell became the first Conservative MP to defect to UKIP, and even retained the seat for his new party at the subsequent 2015 election. And, of course, ten days into the current election campaign, Nigel Farage announced that he would contest the seat for Reform. 

Nigel Farage adjusts himself after having a milkshake thrown over him at Clacton last week during an election event. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

In early November 2023, Sunak also took a helicopter to Lincolnshire where he visited a school in the constituency of Boston and Skegness. This is another vulnerable area for the Conservatives, not least because Boston, the main town in the constituency, registered a 75% pro-Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum – the highest in the country. The town has since been dubbed “Britain’s unofficial Brexit capital,” and, as if to ram home the point about the danger of a challenge from the right, Richard Tice, the ex-leader of Reform, is standing there in July.

Sunak has continued to make good use of private air travel since calling the election in May. He spent the first few days of the campaign crisscrossing the country by plane or helicopter to places like Derbyshire, Belfast and Barry in an attempt to engage with voters.

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In fairness, he has made at least one major rail journey during the campaign, when he took an overnight sleeper from London Paddington to Penzance and pronounced himself “very excited” to be catching the train. The Prime Minister may have wanted to portray himself as a born-again rail enthusiast, but this new-found love appears to have been short-lived. The following day he was spotted disembarking from a helicopter at London’s Battersea heliport – he had made the return journey from the West Country to London by air.    

Full details of how all his numerous private campaign flights were paid for may only emerge many months from now.  It’s possible that many were funded by party donors, and that has been another area of concern for critics of Sunak’s travel policy. In the last six months of 2023, Sunak took six private plane or helicopter journeys which had been funded by Conservative donors, and a number of the names involved have raised eyebrows. Some have been in receipt of large sums of public money through Government contracts, while others have been the subject of public controversy. 


Conservative Donors to the Rescue

One of the more interesting of those donors is medical entrepreneur Akhil Tripathi. He is the founder of Signifier Medical Technologies, a company that hopes to market an anti-snoring device known as eXciteOSA. This technology is designed to help strengthen a patient’s tongue by using electrical currents to prevent it collapsing back into the throat and blocking the airway. 

Mr Tripathi has long been generous towards the Conservatives, and in the last three years has given over £114,000 in cash, including two gifts of £50,000 each in July and November 2021.

Around the time of his second donation to the party, Mr Tripathi reportedly met with then Health Secretary Sajid Javid and has subsequently enjoyed face-time with both Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden.

On 28 April 2023, Mr Tripathi supplied a private plane at a cost of £38,500 so that the Prime Minister was able to travel to both the Welsh and Scottish Conservative conferences in one day. From the start this generous donation-in-kind attracted controversy. Sunak sent Mr Tripathi a hand-written note of thanks, which read: “Dear Akhil, thank you for arranging the use of your plane.”  But it wasn’t actually Mr Tripathi’s plane. It later emerged that he had rented the Embraer Legacy 500 which came with 2 pilots, 2 crew and room for 12 passengers. 

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Soon there was another issue.  The donation was originally recorded by Sunak under the name of Akhil Tripathi, then in June 2023 the donor name was changed to Balderton Medical Consultants, a company whose sole director Richard Kent is reported to be a friend of Mr Tripathi, before the donor’s name was changed back again in July 2023 to Mr Tripathi. Neither Mr Tripathi nor Sunak have explained how and why these changes came about. 

Mr Tripathi has attracted attention in the City as well as the world of politics. He founded Signifier Technologies Limited in 2015 and there was much initial interest from investors. But things appear to have become more difficult since. In the most recent accounts filed in March 2023 the company records revenue of just over £3 million and an overall loss of more than £42 million. It also admits to “a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt on the entity’s ability to continue as a going concern”.   Accounts for year 2022-23 have not yet been filed and are overdue. 

Mr Tripathi is also facing several court cases from former business partners and investors over allegations of fraudulent share dealings, and in April a judge ordered that over £14 million of his worldwide assets be frozen. 

Mr Tripathi is yet to respond to a request for comment from Byline Times. He is understood to deny any wrongdoing over his companies and insists that any actions he took over Signifier and its shares were to ease the company’s cash position.  It is understood that he also denies any impropriety regarding any of his political donations.

Labour’s Emily Thornberry has said there are still big questions for the Conservative Party to answer, and that they need to give “a full and honest account” of events around the donation of the private plane, and of how Mr Tripathi’s meetings with cabinet ministers came about.  “They must explain on what basis Mr Tripathi gained access to the highest levels of government, and what checks were made on his background before he did so.” 

The Prime Minister and the Conservative Party were contacted about this story but did not respond.

Frank Hester, seen speaking at a Commonwealth Business Forum event in Rwanda this year, has donated over £15 million to Conservative coffers. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

Mr Tripathi isn’t the only donor of private air travel who has been involved in controversy. Businessman Richard Harpin founded both Homeserve, one of the UK’s biggest home insurance companies, and the tradesman’s review site Checkatrade. Since 2008 he has given over £3 million to the Conservatives. 

On at least four occasions he has donated the use of a private helicopter to Sunak, most recently during the first weekend of the election campaign, when the Prime Minister used it to travel from his constituency, Richmond in North Yorkshire, to a campaign event in South London. 

Some of Mr Harpin’s contributions have led to trouble for the Conservatives, however, and in March the party was fined £10,750 by the Electoral Commission for under-reporting and late reporting of his donations. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Harpin in these incidents.

But he has had his own issues with regulators. In February 2014, HomeServe was fined over £30 million by the Financial Conduct Authority for the mis-selling of insurance products and the mishandling of complaints. The company suspended its sales force in response and ordered re-training. And in April 2012, the company was fined £750,000 by Ofcom for making large numbers of silent cold calls to potential customers.

Mr Harpin has been contacted for comment but has yet to respond.

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Steve Parkin is another businessman who has regularly contributed to Conservative coffers, to the tune of £750,000 since 2016, and paid for private air travel for Sunak. In May 2023 his company Knaresborough Aviation gave £9,300 to provide a helicopter for the Prime Minister to fly from a Conservative party event. It was the fourth non-cash donation by Knaresborough Aviation to the party since April 2022 registered under the heading of “travel”. Together, those donations have been valued at £43,042. 

Mr Parkin, who lives in Jersey, is a colourful character. He drives a Ferrari, runs a stud farm and once paid £1 million to book Robbie Williams for a private party on his country estate. While there has been no suggestion of any impropriety, he has been in receipt of lucrative Government contracts. During the Coronavirus pandemic his firm Clipper Logistics was paid £11 million to deliver PPE, and in January 2023 it emerged that the company also received £4.5 million to incinerate items from suppliers that were not up to standard. 

Then there’s Frank Hester, the technology entrepreneur from West Yorkshire, whose company The Phoenix Partnership has received around £400 million since 2016 in Government contracts, including supervising NHS records. He hit the headlines in March when a Guardian investigation revealed that he had made insulting comments about Britain’s first black female MP: “It’s like trying not to be racist but you see Diane Abbott on the TV and you’re just like, I hate, you just want to hate all black women because she’s there, and I don’t hate all black women at all, but I think she should be shot.”

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At the time Mr Hester apologised for being “rude” and said that the criticism “had nothing to do with her gender or colour of skin” but hasn’t apologised for the fact that his remarks were seen as racist and misogynistic, or that they could be considered as an incitement to violence

Mr Hester has donated over £15 million to Conservative coffers – the single biggest donor of recent years.

He has also provided air travel to the Prime Minister, and on 23 November last year, The Phoenix Partnership paid £15,900 for a helicopter flight to West Yorkshire where Sunak visited a jewellery manufacturing business near Bradford. But this wasn’t the only stop Sunak made. He spent an hour visiting Mr Hester’s IT company in Leeds, and those present were instructed to be discreet about the details. 

Mr Hester has been contacted for comment, but has yet to respond.

When Mr Hester’s remarks about Abbott came to light Labour called for his donations to be repaid. Labour Party Chairwoman Anneliese Dodds wrote to the Prime Minister: “Accepting and using that money can only be treated as implicitly condoning and overlooking his deeply disturbing comments … Anything less than returning the money will be a stain on the Conservative Party”

Sunak was urged to return Hester’s donations after racist comments he made about Diane Abbott were publicised sparking a public outcry. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “Mr Hester has rightly apologised for comments made in the past. [He has] shown contrition and we consider the matter resolved. The Conservative Party is funded by membership, fundraising and donations. All reportable donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

Perhaps when this election is over Sunak might care to reflect on whether his frequent use of private air travel was a net gain or a loss for him. Sure, it has been helping him crisscross the country to try and shore up the fortunes of a party that has trailed in the polls for pretty much his whole time in office. But have his many donor-funded flights contributed to a view that he and his party are too ready to take gifts from people, some of whom have attracted unwelcome controversy? Has the sheer frequency of his flights – both privately and publicly funded – helped to confirm an impression that he and his party are out of touch, and don’t quite understand the everyday struggles of ordinary people? Maybe after the election these are questions he will have much more time to ponder. 

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