Esther McVey mocked for on-air ‘wrong way airport’ gaffe – so here are the facts
Esther McVey has been mocked after suffering a live radio meltdown over an airport built "in the wrong direction".
The Tory leadership hopeful named the project as she reeled off a string of disasters paid for by foreign aid.
"We know airports have been built and actually the runways are in the wrong direction because of the winds," she said.
"We know we've got that airport where we can't take off and land because of the cross-winds there."
But sharp-eared LBC host Iain Dale hauled her up on her claim – and she somewhat fell apart.
Asked where the runway was, she sheepishly replied: "It's in… one of the continents… abroad."
Lo and behold, it turns out the interviewer had good reason to be sceptical.
But it also turns out some of what Ms McVey said was right. So what's right and what's wrong? Here are the facts.
Did the UK fund an airport with wind problems?
It's true the Department for International Development was slammed for spending £285million of taxpayer cash on an airport where planes struggled to land.
Wind “shear” meant commercial flights were cancelled at St Helena in the South Atlantic.
The problem on the tiny British outpost was first identified by Charles Darwin in 1836. But the Government backed building a runway on the island in a bid to boost 21st Century tourism.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee blasted the fiasco in damning 2016 report.
The report said it was "staggering" that ministers commissioned the airport before examining if commercial jets could be landed safely.
The Department for International Development (DFID) "did not do enough" to ensure it had the "competence" to build the airport.
Was it in a completely foreign country?
Despite being thousands of miles away in the Atlantic, St Helena is a UK Overseas Territory.
That means it is factually different from handing cash to a country over which our government has no formal influence.
Was it paid for by foreign aid?
Despite widespread claims otherwise on Twitter (including from the minister who built the airport), the government tells us this is true.
A Department for International Development spokeswoman told the Mirror today that the airport was funded through "official development assistance".
The spokeswoman told us this cash DID come from the 0.7% of GDP that is set aside for foreign aid spending.
That contradicts claims by former DFID minister Alan Duncan yesterday.
He wrote on Twitter: "The runway in question is in St Helena. I was the DfID Minister who built it – completed early, under budget, and despite difficult wind conditions it operates well. It fulfils our legal obligations to a UK overseas territory and so is not ‘foreign aid’."
But was it like foreign aid to, for example, African countries?
While technically Ms McVey was correct (above) it's not like other foreign aid.
That is because, foreign aid or not, the UK DID have a legal obligation to provide cash to St Helena. It can't simply be cut off completely.
And that's where Alan Duncan (above) is correct. So Ms McVey's attempt to lump it in with other foreign aid scandals is somewhat off the mark.
Was the runway 'in the wrong direction?
It doesn't seem so.
At least, that certainly wasn't the focus of the Public Accounts Committee report in 2016.
Instead that report spoke of the "prevailing wind conditions" on the island – known as "wind shear".
It explained: "Wind shear is a change in wind speed or direction over a short distance. It can be caused by surface obstructions or atmospheric conditions and is particularly hazardous for aircraft close to the ground."
So no mention of direction there. And the Public Accounts Committee said the airport's managers were considering flights approaching from both directions – both north and south – as part of their remedial works.
Are planes still banned from landing there?
While commercial flights were unable to land safely at first, they began in 2017.
Flights are now running between the island and the South African city of Johannesburg.
DFID said the service has carried 11,000 passengers, making a small profit in its first year and cutting the journey time from five days to six hours.
A DFID spokeswoman said: “The UK Government recognises its duty to support its overseas territories. St Helena Airport is critical to St Helena, its people and the economic future of the Island.”
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