As commutes go, the Paddington to Plymouth train is pretty idyllic, passing through the Wessex Downs and skimming the edge of the English Channel.
Yet 31 times last year, Johnny Mercer – the Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View, and a recently appointed minister in Boris Johnson's government – chose to avoid the train and, instead, spend thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on flying between London and Newquay, more than tripling the carbon footprint of each journey in the process. It's a choice that's been labelled "outrageous" and "arrogant" by environmental campaigners, who have accused him and other MPs of "jumping on planes as if they were busses".
Parliament may have passed a motion declaring a climate emergency earlier this summer, but when it comes to their personal travel choices, our current crop of MPs don't always demonstrate the same level of environmental concern. According to expenses figures published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and analysed by VICE, MPs claimed for more than 1,400 flights between London and their constituencies in 2018/19. Of these, 40 MPs claimed for 12 or more flights – an average of one or more per month.
Understandably, the majority of those who flew most frequently represent Scottish constituencies. The worst "offender" in terms of pure numbers, for example, was Alistair Carmichael, who somewhat ironically was the Lib Dems' environment spokesperson at the time, but flew between London and his constituency 126 times in 2018/19. However, when you consider that Carmichael represents Orkney & Shetland, his decisions make more sense (as do those of others representing similarly far-flung areas). As Carmichael put it: "It's a 12-and-a-half-hour ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland, and an eight-hour train from London to Aberdeen. I'd spend at least two days every week just travelling."
What makes Mercer's choice stand out is that his constituency is considerably closer and more easily accessible from London. According to data from The Trainline, the UK's most popular online ticketing service, the average train journey between Paddington and Plymouth takes three hours and 34 minutes. Some of the regularly-scheduled services run even faster.
Depending on how you travel, it takes between roughly an hour-and-a-half to two hours to get from Westminster to Gatwick, clear security and get to the gate. With this in mind, the time savings Mercer is making by flying for an hour and 15 minutes to and from Newquay (between 20 to 50 minutes) start to look negligible, especially when set against the environmental damage his choices are causing.
Short-haul domestic flights are "particularly bad" for the planet, says Anna Hughes, Director of Flight Free UK, a campaign group that encourages people to give up flying because of the large amount of aviation fuel burned up on take-off and landing. "But it's not just the exceptional amount of pollution," she says, "it's the luxury of it, it's the carelessness of it, it's the fact that there's just so little thought to the impact, because it's so easy to take alternatives."
Mercer didn't respond to our request to comment for this article, but while his is perhaps the most egregious example, he's far from the only MP who appears to have elected to fly between Westminster and their constituency out of choice.
Sarah Newton, a Conservative who's the only other English MP on the list of frequent fliers, claimed for 35 flights to Newquay last year. Fellow Tory John Lamont claimed for 43 flights between London and Edinburgh, despite the fact his Scottish borders constituency can easily be reached by taking the train to Berwick-upon-Tweed (average journey time: four hours, two minutes) – a point made clear by the fact he claimed for 15 train tickets for that journey over the same period.
Contacted for comment, John Lamont made the point that Parliamentary timetables are far from ideal for MPs who have to travel long distances, and late votes can mean transport options are limited. He admitted that taking a train and catching a flight get him home at roughly the same time, but said that because it's "not always possible to know the voting times at Westminster, I cannot always catch the last train home to Berwick". He can, however, "usually still catch the last flight", which leaves around two hours later.
When we contacted Sarah Newton about the flights she'd claimed for last year, she told us she'd decided to stop flying to and from her constituency altogether "a few months ago" as part of a personal carbon pledge, and had urged her colleagues to make similar promises.
Flying domestically isn't just a Tory trait; it's an issue that cuts across party lines. Despite her official website claiming that "the environment and climate change are fast becoming the defining issues of our times", and calling for "urgent action", Jo Swinson – recently elected leader of the Liberal Democrats – also features on the frequent flier list from last year.
Swinson's spokesperson told VICE that while "it is sometimes necessary for Jo to fly because of her diary commitments, she regularly travels on the sleeper train when that is most appropriate". The IPSA data, however, shows she claimed expenses for 34 flights to and from Glasgow (average train time: five hours and 31 minutes) to reach her East Dunbartonshire constituency, and just nine train journeys, seven of them with the "sleeper supplement".
There are others from all parties whose plane journeys – on paper, at least – seem even more inexplicable. Christine Jardine of the Lib Dems, who represents Edinburgh West, claimed 45 flights last year. Labour's Ian Murray, of Edinburgh South, claimed 37. Yet somehow MPs from neighbouring constituencies managed to travel to and from the Scottish capital regularly without feeling the need to fly. Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) and Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North), both of the SNP, claimed for just one flight apiece, taking the train the rest of the time – a journey that can take as little as four hours from city centre to city centre.
While Ian Murray didn't respond to our requests for comment, Christine Jardine said she would like to take the train more often, but the timing of Parliamentary business means that sometimes "it's not possible". When she flies, she said, "it's never about convenience, it's about maximising working time in the constituency".
It's not just the unnecessary carbon emissions caused by domestic flights that campaigners like Anna Hughes find galling, it's the fact that taxpayers' money is being spent on creating them. As one of a growing number of people who've chosen not to travel by air at all, Hughes is disgusted that "my money is paying for other people to fly. That is outrageous."
MPs racking up the air miles on domestic flights is also part of a broader problem. The fact that public servants feel justified spending taxpayers' money on internal flights has a lot to do with how British society as a whole views flying. I myself am far from blameless in this regard: I no longer fly domestically, and I offset all of my household and travel carbon emissions, but I have flown internationally several times this year. "One of the problems we have [in the UK] is that we get on an aeroplane as if it's a bus," says Hughes, "and it's not a bus. It's incredibly damaging."
Changing this will take legislation. As Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party, says: "We need to make the train or bus the most convenient, reliable and affordable option: too often now, that isn't the case." This is why the Green Party prefer to focus "on system change rather than individual behaviour".
While taxing aviation fuel, removing the subsidies the industry enjoys and investing in greener forms of transport would be a start, both Womack and Hughes believe that MPs also bear a personal responsibility that goes beyond their duties as lawmakers. "System change is also about social change," says Hughes, and "if our leaders jump on planes with the frequency of busses, then it normalises the process and encourages everybody to continue flying."
It's not as if there aren't alternatives. "Molly Scott Cato, who is the Green MEP for South West England, is quite famous for not flying," says Hughes, admiringly. "She goes from London to Brussels and Strasbourg frequently by train." More impressive still ("because that's easy") is the fact that, because Scott Cato's constituency also includes Gibraltar, she regularly travels all the way to the south of Spain by rail. "That's an interesting comparison. If Molly can do an international political job without flying, then people can not fly to bloody Manchester," says Hughes – a journey several MPs claimed for last year.
Scott Cato might be an outlier, but the data seen by VICE shows that there are also plenty of Westminster MPs from all parties who regularly travel long distances by train.
Labour's Chi Onwurah claimed for zero flights last year, instead taking the train between London and Newcastle 106 times. Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, also travelled to and from London regularly, without taking a single flight. Conservative Derek Thomas, who represents St Ives on the southwest tip of Cornwall (70 miles west of Johnny Mercer's Plymouth constituency), only claimed for one flight – and that was to get across the sea to the Scilly Isles, which are also part of his constituency. All of this would seem to give the lie to the idea that the likes of Mercer or Lamont are justified in claiming for domestic air travel.
"Parliament declared a climate emergency earlier this year," says Amelia Womack, and "we're obviously very pleased about that." But, she argues, recognising the scale of the crisis is just the first step: "There needs to be an action plan to deliver on it."
Of course, MPs changing their travel plans won't solve the climate crisis by itself. But "MPs should be setting an example wherever possible", Womack says. Or, as Anna Hughes puts it, "We have to acknowledge that you cannot say one thing and do another."