British political parties and individual politicians have received more than £9 million worth of donations from the aviation industry, with the vast majority going to the Brexit Party and the Conservatives, DeSmog can reveal.
The top four incumbent politicians to have taken donations are all Conservative MPs, with former International Trade Secretary Liam Fox receiving the most. Two other Tory MPs, three Labour MPs and the leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, are joint fourth, and another Tory MP is also in the top 10.
Official records show how airports, airlines and aircraft manufacturers have made hundreds of contributions, either in cash or to cover the cost of politicians’ travel, since the Electoral Commission’s online political finance database listings begin in 2001.
While significant amounts have been donated by well-known companies such as Airbus and Virgin Atlantic, more than half of the donations come from Christopher Harborne, CEO of AML Global, an aviation fuel supplier.
Harborne has given the Brexit Party £5.2 million since July this year, having previously gifted the Conservative Party a total of £279,000. Harborne was a member of the Conservative Party’s elite “Leader’s Group” of donors until he switched allegiance in July.
Three other Leader’s Group members – Michael Bishop, now Lord Glendonbrook, a former owner of BMI Airlines, and Anastasia and Serge Sergeef, former Managing Directors of Sovereign Business Jets – contributed a combined total of £1,387,000 to the Conservatives.
Although Labour and Conservative politicians received a similar amount of donations (£680,000 and £647,000, respectively), when these are combined with donations made to their central parties, the Tories received £2.8 million, more than three times the total given to Labour.
The Liberal Democrats were the fourth largest recipient party with £189,000 in donations, while the SNP and Plaid Cymru each received £20,000. UKIP, the official Remain campaign and the DUP all received less than £10,000.
Donations made personally to politicians accounted for approximately a fifth of the total.
Liam Fox came first among incumbents, with £19,000 worth of donations from Virgin Atlantic and BAA. The pro-Brexit MP has previously stressed the need to “reduce the consumption of fossil fuels” but has backed fracking and told an oil and gas conference earlier this year that “for the moment, we do require fossil fuels to deliver secure and affordable energy.”
He has close ties to US-based free market lobby groups with a history of climate science denial and opposition to emissions reduction, which he developed through the Atlantic Bridge, the now-defunct think tank he founded.
Nigel Evans, a fellow Conservative Brexiteer, is in second place and has been a strong advocate of aviation growth in the UK, criticising the “dither and delay” over airport expansion in an article for ConservativeHome.
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Chris Ruane, a Welsh Labour MP, told DeSmog the two donations from BAA and Manchester Airport in 2001 that put him and others in joint fourth place among incumbent politicians related to an offer of free parking from UK airports to all MPs that no longer exists.
“In common with all MPs at the time, I was given the facility of parking at UK airports and to ensure I was open and honest I chose to declare the maximum potential amount that this benefit could be worth. It does not reflect the actual usage of the benefit. This offer ceased in 2001.”
He reiterated his commitment to tackling climate change, including through the development of more renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. “Faced with a Conservative Party who have far too many members who deny the climate emergency, this election is one of the most important for decades,” he added.
A spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, whose leader Adam Price is also in the top 10, told DeSmog the party’s MPs had “consistently voted against a third runway at Heathrow” and were committed to tackling the climate emergency by becoming a “zero-carbon, zero-waste nation by 2030”.
None of the other parties or politicians in this story responded to a request for comment.
Analysis of the donations also shows surges in giving around the time of key government decisions on aviation, such as the approval of Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2001 and debates around Heathrow expansion in 2009 and 2018.
BAA, the previous owner of several UK airports including Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Edinburgh and Glasgow, gave £1.2 million between 2001 and 2009.
A BBC investigation recently found airlines across Europe have been deliberately stocking up on more fuel than necessary in countries with cheaper fuel prices, increasing a flight’s carbon footprint in a technique known as “fuel tankering”.
Leo Murray, Co-founder and Director of Innovation at climate charity Possible and creator of the “frequent flyer levy” proposal, told DeSmog it was “perhaps not entirely coincidental” that politicians had collectively received so many donations given their support for aviation growth across the UK, including at Heathrow.
“Aviation today is effectively a rogue sector when it comes to climate change, with nobody prepared to take responsibility for its rapidly increasing emissions, and ongoing support for regional airport expansion all over the UK from many of the same politicians that have been endorsing local climate emergency declarations,” he said.
Parties are pledging to respond in differing ways to the sector’s emissions, which are projected to increase beyond levels that the government’s climate advisors say are compatible with the country’s 2050 “net zero” target.
While the Conservatives recently announced new funding for research and development into cleaner aircraft, the Greens and Liberal Democrats both oppose any further airport expansion and back a “frequent flyer levy” to target the minority of air passengers who take a majority of flights.
Labour has signaled it could scrap Heathrow expansion if elected but stopped short of saying it would seek to limit aviation growth in its manifesto.
The SNP voted in favour of Heathrow expansion last year, in contrast to Plaid Cymru’s position, but decided to U-turn on a proposed cut to air passenger tax earlier this year, saying the plan was “no longer compatible” with its climate targets. The Brexit Party does not mention aviation policy in its manifesto.
DeSmog compiled a spreadsheet of donations by searching the Electoral Commission’s political finance database, using aviation-related terms such as “airport” and “airline” as well as specific aviation company names and directors. We manually checked over the almost 500 entries to remove any duplicates or irrelevant donations. We then analysed the donations according to political party and ordered individual politicians according to the total size of donations received. Politicians were categorised according to the party they represented and the position they held at the time of the donation.
Photo credit: InsightPhotography