a plane sitting on the tarmac at an airport: Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Boris Johnson’s red, white and blue paint job on the prime ministerial plane is costing the UK taxpayer £900,000, his official spokesman has said.

The spokesman confirmed that the RAF Voyager, previously coloured grey, is in Cambridgeshire for a makeover.

“The RAF Voyager used by the royal family and the PM is currently in Cambridgeshire for pre-planned repainting. This will mean that the plane can better represent the UK around the world with national branding, which will be in line with many other leaders’ planes,” he said. He added that it would continue to perform its other job, refuelling military jets.

a plane sitting on the tarmac at an airport: The RAF Voyager plane at Heathrow airport, London, in 2016. The plane is in Cambridgeshire being repainted. © Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA The RAF Voyager plane at Heathrow airport, London, in 2016. The plane is in Cambridgeshire being repainted.

The project was condemned as a waste of public money by opposition parties.

Labour frontbencher Louise Haigh said: “When families across the country are worried about their jobs, health and the education of their children, they will rightly question the government’s priorities when they are spending almost £1m redecorating a plane.”

SNP MP Stewart McDonald said: “This is an utterly unacceptable use of public funds whilst members of the armed forces are spending their own money on uniforms and kit, and the equipment plan deficit is well into the billions for several years running.”

Johnson’s spokesman said that the price tag included the cost of creating a design that will “promote the UK around the world without compromising the plane’s vital military role” – and stressed that British businesses would do the work.

Asked whether the rebranding had been Johnson’s idea, the spokesman said: “The PM approved the decision.”

On a trip to South America as foreign secretary two years ago, Johnson said the Voyager, then Theresa May’s plane, was not available to him often enough – and complained about its dull colour scheme.

“What I will say about the Voyager, I think it’s great, but it seems to be very difficult to get hold of.” He added: “And also, why does it have to be grey?”

One reason for the grey colour scheme is that the plane’s dual use means it needs to be camouflaged. However, in an attempt at compromise, one source said that the body of the plane would now be painted white with a blue stripe - while the tailfin would be painted in a union flag design.

This would make it look similar to a British Airways plane, but will present something of a headache for air force commanders who know that the Voyager would be more visible to enemy air forces as well as being identifiable as the UK’s principal VIP plane.

As well as the prime minister, the plane is used by the royal family and is staffed by the RAF. It is unclear when Johnson will first travel on the Voyager with its new livery.

Johnson’s plans for the plane emerged on Tuesday, as he was announcing a major shake-up in the UK’s approach to foreign policy, merging the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office.

He made clear the shift would lead to trade and security considerations playing a greater role in determining the UK’s relationship with low-income countries – with the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, making the final decision about which countries will receive official assistance.

Defence sources confirmed on Tuesday the plane was being repainted at a specialist secure hangar run by Marshall Aerospace near Cambridge.

If Johnson wants to increase the government’s access to the plane by buying more flying hours worth from the Ministry of Defence, it could increase the knock-on costs to the taxpayer because the military will be forced to charter aircraft for its own needs.

Andy Netherwood, a defence analyst, said: “The paint scheme gives away the fact that No 10 is re-purposing an aircraft acquired to provide defence. If Johnson wants a VIP jet fine, but make the argument and pay for it.”

The Voyager is one of a fleet of transport planes leased to the Ministry of Defence by a consortium of aerospace firms called Air Tanker, and was refitted with a VIP section when David Cameron was prime minister at a cost of £10m.

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