Boris Johnson has been accused of “copper-bottomed, ocean-going incompetence” after experts warned his trade yacht plans could flout World trade Organisation rules.
A new national flagship, the successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia, has been given the go-ahead by the PM who says it will promote British trade and industry around the world.
The vessel, which will cost £200 million, will be used to host trade fairs, ministerial summits and diplomatic talks as the UK seeks to build links and boost exports following Brexit.
It will be the first national flagship since Britannia, which was decommissioned in 1997, but the new vessel will be a ship rather than a luxury yacht.
WTO agreement signed by Liz Truss
But it could have sailed into choppy waters already after plans to build it in a domestic shipyard flouted strict rules.
Under the WTO’s government procurement agreement signed by trade secretary Liz Truss just eight months ago the ship must be open to global competition, experts have warned.
Ms Truss says she signed up to the agreement to UK companies could keep bidding for contracts around the world, which might help offset trade lost from leaving the EU.
But it also requires British public contracts to be offered to global companies in a fair contest.
The UK’s schedule to the GPA explicitly says “ships, boats and floating structures, except warships” must be advertised internationally and awarded without discrimination, the Financial Times first reported.
The UK’s implementation of the GPA goes further than other countries like the US and Canada, which both excluded civilian shipbuilding.
“It is likely that the GPA will be engaged, which means that open, fair and transparent conditions of competition will have to be met, and GPA country suppliers would have to be treated in the same manner as domestic ones,” Aline Doussin, head of the international trade team at law firm Hogan Lovells told the newspaper.
“Copper-bottomed, ocean-going incompetence”
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow trade secretary, described the government’s approach as “copper-bottomed, ocean-going incompetence”.
Asked about the situation, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We have been absolutely clear that the programme will be compliant with our obligations under the WTO government procurement agreement.
“The flagship will play an important role in delivering the vision we will shortly set out in the national shipbuilding strategy.
“As well as promoting trade, it is expected the flagship will pa an important role in supporting the UK’s foreign policy and security objectives, including by hosting summits and other diplomatic talks, so it will therefore be in compliance with WTO rules.”