Published: 14:00, 18 September 2014
| Updated: 14:42, 18 September 2014
A cabinet minister has thrown his full weight behind saving Manston airport describing it as “a key part of supporting jobs and growth”.
Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps said making the airport viable was “much like running any other business” as he visited the site today.
In a show of unity, Mr Shapps was joined by the Labour leader of Thanet District Council Iris Johnston and said reopening the airport had cross-party support.
He also paid tribute to MPs Sir Roger Gale and Laura Sandys, who he said had lobbied him, the Prime Minister and Parliament “tirelessly”.
More than 100 supporters turned up at the airport for the minister’s visit.
Mr Shapps said: “A place like Manston that has all these historic links through the First and Second World War has a lot to potentially lend to the future of the economy the area.
“What convinces me of that is not what I think but what local people are saying.
"When you look 20 years ahead you can see how it would be a key part of supporting jobs and growth for people locally.”
Addressing supporters he said: “This goes much beyond people and politics. It is about all of you. This is about the place that you live in.
“The reason I wanted to come and speak to you today was to say that you are not alone.
“You are not here as a small district council on your own having to make all these decisions and feel like there is no one else here to support you.
“I’m here from government as a cabinet minister to say we back you and we are on your side.”
Much speculation has centred around whether Thanet council will attempt to buy the airport using a compulsory purchase order, after a series of leaked emails appeared to show appetite for the move was waning.
Leader Cllr Johnson said the council is in active talks about setting up an Enterprise Zone around Manston, offering a 100% business rate discount.
This would either be a stand alone body or add on to one already in place with Dover District Council around Discovery Park, near Sandwich.
Cllr Johnston said: “We would have to get a good business case but I felt the minister was listening to that this morning.
“I’m absolutely delighted [with Mr Shapps’ visit]. We had a long conversation on Monday and I was left in no doubt that he wanted to support us.
“I’m here from government as a cabinet minister to say we back you and we are on your side...” - Minister Grant Shapps
“We had a very constructive meeting earlier. Obviously the cards are very much in our hands on the compulsory purchase side of things.
“The owner still owns the site and we have a lot of work to do but it is wonderful to see Mr Shapps here and it is amazing to see, as usual, the Save Manston campaigners have all come out.”
Save Manston Airport campaign founder Dan Light said: “It’s very positive that Grant has come down today.
"I believe that more support we get, the more Manston has a future.
”When I spoke to him he was very upbeat about the future of Manston.”
Sue Girdler was one of the first people to speak to Mr Shapps as he arrived.
Her family firm, TG Aviation, has been forced to relocate to Lydd airport to continue trading.
She said: ”I handed him a book of photographs which explained why we think Manston is worth saving, pictures of the aircraft that have operated out of here and the benefits that have arisen from that.
“I feel that under the right management, Manston can be a success.
“I hope today is another step towards the future of the site.
“This year the Battle of Britain flight and the Red Arrows have had to base elsewhere because this facility has been closed and that’s a huge shame.”
However, Ukip leader Nigel Farage dismissed Mr Shapps' visit as a Conservative stunt to mitigate growing support for Ukip in the area.
He said: "Grant Shapps has said nothing and offered nothing.
"His trip shows just how worried he is about Ukip. He has offered no reassurances for Manston airport."
The rally comes as representatives from US investment group RiverOak met with Thanet council officials today to discuss how they could support a compulsory purchase of the site by the council.
The Connecticut-based group made three offers to buy the site before it closed, meeting the asking price of £7m.
Reports suggest the group can secure £20m to reopen it.
Chief executive Steve DeNardo said: "We have done our homework and talked to lawyers and have a pretty good idea of the numbers."