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6 May 2021

Why the new royal yacht could be politically dangerous for Boris Johnson

Spending £200m on a new flagship may come to symbolise the fact the Tories no longer care about wasting other people’s money. 

By David Gauke

“Boris Johnson will announce within weeks a new national flagship named after the Duke of Edinburgh that will be seen as a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia,” announced Christopher Hope in the Sunday Telegraph. Assuming that this is correct (and there is no particular reason to doubt it), this will be a personal triumph for Hope, who has long campaigned for a “new national flagship”. In the process he was much ridiculed, but just because an idea is ridiculous does not mean it won’t become government policy.

The new yacht will cost “as much as £200m” but, given this is military procurement, it would be safer to assume that “as much as” means “at least”.  There are, however, a number of arguments provided for the project – all of them unconvincing.  

It will “boost British trade and drive investment into the UK economy”, according to senior government sources, by “mooring near international trade fairs, hosting high-level trade negotiations and sailing all over the world promoting UK interests”.

Up to a point, I suppose it might. But the suggestion that a new royal yacht has an important role to play in clinching trade deals seems a little far-fetched. Trade negotiations are generally complex and lengthy as both sides grapple with challenging trade-offs and carefully analyse the costs and benefits. It seems unlikely that any future trading partner would abandon all of that because Liz Truss has turned up in a Royal Navy ship and offered to host. In any event, it is a curious trade policy to move away from a large and well-established market on our doorstep towards a focus on those countries where the capital city has a harbour.

The next justification is that it can be built in the UK and provide a boost to British shipbuilding jobs, although senior sources say that “in order to stipulate that it is made in Britain it has to have a military use, otherwise it will go out to procurement and could be made in Italy”. Presumably, the fear is that the dastardly Italians would build the ship more cheaply and that would never do, so we will have to add some gun turrets or something. They might be useful if our interlocutors cut up rough over agricultural standards and might be a step up from threatening an uncomfortable chair

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[see also: Commons Confidential: Johnson’s showboat]

So we are going to use taxpayers’ money to pay people to build a ship that we may (or may not) need, at above the market rate, to provide jobs to those working in the shipbuilding sector. This would certainly be a repudiation of Thatcherism and, therefore, might have appeal in the Red Wall. It would also be a repudiation of economic good sense.

The third justification is that this would be a good way of commemorating the Duke of Edinburgh and, although no one is quite so indelicate to say this explicitly, provide some consolation to his grieving widow. In other words, this is an expression of support and affection for the royal family.

Whether the Duke would have approved (someone who reputedly did not like a fuss being made over him) is unclear, but according to Sky’s deputy political editor, Sam Coates, Buckingham Palace had not been consulted about the proposal and was “very aware of the optics” and “very displeased” about it.  

Palace scepticism is justified and that brings me to a fourth, unspoken reason for going ahead with the project. It upsets all the right people. Imagine the uproar when this is announced as various lefty republicans rush forward to condemn the plan and, while they are at it, have a go at the whole institution of the monarchy. Not all scepticism will come from lefty republicans (speaking as neither a lefty nor a republican), but the loudest voices will be from outside the mainstream when it comes to attitudes to the monarchy.

Upsetting the earnest left-winger is something the Prime Minister enjoys and is part of his appeal to a large part of the electorate. This is the type of row out of which Boris Johnson – on the side of the Royal Navy, the royal family and, dammit, Great Britain itself – would expect to emerge triumphant. But for the royal family, emerging triumphant from rows isn’t their thing. Winning an argument 52-48 isn’t good enough when your purpose is to unite the great majority in the country. Monarchists should be nervous about a proposal that sucks the royals into an avoidable controversy.  

There is also a political consideration that should worry the government in the longer term. The row over the No 11 refurbishment highlights a vulnerability for Johnson: he is perceived as being careless with financial matters; prone to backing extravagant projects; and, as Thatcher might have put it, destined to run out of other people’s money.

The Conservatives have always relied on the voter who tells themselves “say what you like about the Tories, but they won’t waste my taxes”. Spending millions on a new royal yacht may come to symbolise the fact that this is no longer the case. 

[see also: Is “Global Britain” losing its voice?]