LONDON — Rishi Sunak likes to city hop by helicopter. The British public doesn’t approve.
Almost half of Britons, about 49 percent, oppose the British prime minister traveling via private plane or helicopter, while 54 percent reckon he should take public transport to official engagements even if it takes longer to reach his destination, polling from Redfield and Wilton Strategies conducted this week found.
Just 28 percent think he should take the fastest route no matter the mode of transport.
The research comes amid a raft of negative headlines after he used a helicopter to travel to and from Norwich on Tuesday, a trip of little more than 100 miles, and after he traveled to Southampton from London in May by helicopter instead of a short train journey.
The Mirror newspaper reported earlier this month Sunak used jets and helicopters to travel around the UK more than any other recent prime minister, taking one flight every eight days on average.
In a sign Downing Street may be stung by the criticism, it was reported this week that a contract for ministerial air travel will not be renewed.
“The PM regularly uses all forms of travel. His travel plans will vary and are always decided with consideration to the most efficient and best use of his time, in the interests of the taxpayer,” a government spokesperson said.
The lack of sympathy for Sunak’s helicopter habit may stem from his record in office, according to Redfield and Wilton Director of Research Philip van Scheltinga, who said the stats were just another indicator of the view Sunak isn’t doing a great job.
“If people could see that Rishi Sunak was working hard for them, day after day, and getting results, they would be more understanding of his use of private jets or helicopters,” van Scheltinga explained.
Sunak’s private wealth, estimated to be about £529 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List, could also be a factor.
“With Rishi Sunak, the accusation that he doesn’t understand the challenges facing ordinary people is a particularly potent one compared maybe to some other prime ministers,” Jill Rutter, a fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, said.
“Rishi Sunak does almost look as though his default is to take a helicopter,” Rutter said. “I think other prime ministers would have seen helicopters as an occasional last resort in exceptional circumstances,” she added.
Speed and security
But Rutter, who worked as a senior aide to former prime minister John Major, is sympathetic to prime ministerial time constraints.
“The thing about being prime minister is you are incredibly busy and time is an absolute premium,” she said, although she questioned if helicopter travel was always the best option.
“You can actually do quite a lot of work on the train which is harder to do in a helicopter,” she said. “Productive time is what you’re really interested in.”
And safety concerns can be a factor too, according to Dai Davies, a former head of royal protection at the Met Police, who says he would recommend the most at-risk ministers take VIP flights no matter the destination.
“If you’re the defense secretary or prime minister there’s a greater threat to you than Fred Blogs,” he said.