Cuts Bring Air Force's VIP Fleet Down to Earth ; BLAIR FORCE ONE Fierce Lobbying by Armed Forces Fails to Win a Replacement for the Ministerial VC-10, despite Security Fears

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MARGARET THATCHER loved them, John Major hated them. Tony Blair liked them so much that he installed divan beds on board for himself and Cherie.

But after more than 30 years, VIP use of the Royal Air Force fleet of VC-10s by prime ministers and royals was finally phased out, unnoticed and unannounced, on 1 December last year.

Treasury cuts, combined with a lack of spare capacity, meant that the Ministry of Defence could no longer afford to run the ageing aircraft, except for their other function of air-to-air refuelling.

The termination of their use by ministers had been long planned, despite a campaign by many within the RAF, the MoD, Downing Street and the Foreign Office. Chartering Boeing 777s from British Airways seemed to the Treasury to be a sensible, cost-effective alternative that would end stories about ministers flying in style at the taxpayers' expense.

However, the events of 11 September suddenly put the whole issue of a secure, long-haul aircraft, specially designed to protect VIPs, back on the Government's agenda.

Ever since, a fierce struggle has been conducted within Government as the armed forces and their allies in Whitehall have lobbied for a new, pounds 80m jet to replace the VC-10.

Certainly, as far as the RAF is concerned, the loss of use by the Prime Minister and other senior ministers is seen as a huge blow to its prestige.

The VC-10, with its distinctive grey livery and RAF roundels, was used frequently by Lady Thatcher when she was in office. Mr Major, however, hated its outdated air-conditioning system and preferred Concorde or a Boeing 747 for his global jaunts.

Mr Blair's government had no such qualms. Ministers were so taken with the plane that in 2000 they used it seven times more than the royal family. The aircraft gained the nickname "Blair Force One" through the Prime Minister's regular trips, and in 1998 a set of divan sofa-beds were added at a total cost of pounds 50,000 so that he, his wife and aides could sleep during flights. It used to take five days to convert the plane from military to ministerial use.

The VC-10's threadbare Sixties interior is more cramped than modern airline cabins, and for safety reasons, passengers sit facing the back of the aircraft. The tables may have been wonky and noise levels high, but passengers were always impressed to be served meals by uniformed stewards complete with china crockery bearing the RAF crest.

Despite its age, the VC-10 was the fastest airliner in service, apart from the Boeing 747-400 and Concorde, and it came into its own when Mr Blair needed extra protection to travel to Russia, Pakistan and India on the eve of the bombing of Afghanistan last October.

The last politician to use a VC-10 was Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, when he visited Iran and Pakistan on 24 November.

Devotees of the VC-10 conceded that it needed to be phased out because its technology was out of date, but they lobbied hard for a new, specially adapted Airbus A-330 or Boeing 767 to replace it. …