The Department for Transport has denied that Grant Shapps, a keen pilot, is using a lobbying body to protect airfields from development.
With the political sleaze row continuing to dominate headlines, the Sunday Times reported the Transport Secretary – who the newspaper says owns a £100,000 aeroplane – “set-up and diverted public money” to a new team within the Civil Aviation Authority which is designed to lobby against planning developments that infringe on airstrips.
The newspaper said objections by the Airfield Advisory Team had helped to frustrate Homes England’s plans for 3,000 homes at Chalgrove, an airfield in south Oxfordshire, while also opposing ambitions to build a battery gigafactory on Coventry airport.
But Department for Transport (DfT) officials said the team was not a lobbying body and instead provided “support to general aviation on a range of matters affecting their operations”.
A Government source told PA news agency: “This body is not a lobbying body, it is an advisory body to help general aviation with problems they may have, which may be planning or anything else.
“It is not essentially anti-housing – indeed, housing can sometimes be a solution for financing an airfield.
“As Secretary of State for Transport, it is his function to protect general aviation and we’ve seen a decline in the number of airfields across the country.”
A DfT spokeswoman said: “It is right that the Transport Secretary works to promote all aspects of the department’s brief including the general aviation sector, which contributes £4 billion to the economy and supports 40,000 jobs, especially as we focus on our recovery from the pandemic and on building a diverse workforce that’s fit for the future.”
The Sunday Times article also suggested Mr Shapps’ flying hobby had “undermined” Government efforts to repatriate Britons after the collapse of travel agent Thomas Cook in 2019, and had taken up “valuable time” while the DfT dealt with post-Brexit and coronavirus travel disruption.
But a source told PA the claims were “utterly bogus and demonstrably false”.
The allegations come as another opinion poll piled pressure on Boris Johnson, becoming the fourth survey in less than a week to suggest the Conservatives had lost their lead over Labour as the impact of sleaze allegations continues to ripple.
Opinium put Labour (37%) one point ahead of the Tories (36%), with Sir Keir Starmer’s party up by one, and the governing party down by one after a survey of more than 2,000 UK adults between Wednesday and Friday.
It is the first time an Opinium poll has had Labour in the lead since January, while the Prime Minister’s approval rating slipped to a new low in one of the company’s polls, with a net rating of minus 21%.
The drop in support for the Tories since its botched handling of the Owen Paterson affair has been recorded in a number of polls in recent days, with a Savanta ComRes poll putting Labour six points ahead and a YouGov survey finding the rival parties neck-and-neck.
A separate survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies on Wednesday put Labour two points ahead of the Tories.
The findings come after the Government attempted to rip up the current Commons standards system to delay former Tory cabinet minister Mr Paterson’s suspension for breaking lobbying rules, and revelations former attorney general Sir Geoffrey Cox voted by proxy while offering legal services in the Caribbean.
Mr Paterson opted to resign as MP for North Shropshire after 24 years after ministers U-turned on their standards reforms when opposition parties made clear they would not support them.
The messy handling of the affair has since thrust how much time and money MPs raise from second jobs back into the spotlight, along with scrutiny of second home arrangements.