Boris Johnson has denied his plans to splurge more than £200 million on a new royal yacht are a waste of money, claiming it will help Britain “show off” around the world.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has called on the prime minister to scrap plans for the luxury vessel – a replacement for Royal Yacht Britannia – and spend the money on tackling anti-social behaviour instead.
But Johnson insisted on Wednesday that the new “national flagship” boat would enable the UK to “show itself off to the world” and attract foreign investment.
“We need somewhere where the UK can show itself off to the world and attract investment and that will drive jobs and growth in the UK, not just in shipbuilding but across every sector of the UK,” he told LBC.
‘A forum for British business’
Johnson added that the yacht – which is expected to cost taxpayers up to £250 million – would act as a “forum” which would help British businessmen find overseas investment opportunities.
“It is a project that will not only help to drive, revive the ship building industry in this country, drive immediate jobs and growth for young people, immediate job opportunities for young people in a sector in which this country used to lead the world,” he said.
“But when you consider the opportunity for the UK, as we compete now for inward investment in the UK, we need a forum, a place where the best of British business and industry can come together to showcase what we have to offer, and, you know what I mean by, by MIPIM, the world trade fairs, the expos.”
The vessel is due to be paid for out of the Ministry of Defence budget, even though Downing Street has confirmed the ship will be for trade rather than defence purposes.
Speaking on Wednesday, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted that the ship could cost as much as £50 million more than initial estimates suggested.
In a national flagship engagement day speech in Greenwich, Wallace said: “There has been a lot of reporting around this ship. Not all of it accurate. So let me set out our basic aims.
“Subject to working through bids, competition and technology, I aim to commission the ship for between £200 and £250 million on a firm price.
“The competition will run until the end of October. I hope to announce the winners in December. To begin construction in a British shipyard as early as next year and have a ship in the water by 2024 or 2025.
“That’s an ambitious timescale but this is an ambitious project, the chance to break the mould and break some records to get things done in the national interest.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has hit out at the project as little more than an effort to “distract attention from the sleaze that is swelling around [Johnson] and his government”, whereas Ken Clarke – a former Tory chancellor – has branded it “silly populist nonsense”.
A leading naval architect last month said Johnson’s vision of a new national flagship looks like a “fishing trawler from the 1950s”.
Johnson has previously claimed tha the vessel will reflect the UK’s “burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”.
But Stephen Payne, who designed the British transatlantic ocean liner Queen Mary 2, was less excited about the plans, which he suggested are both unsuitable and likely to cost even more than initially thought.
He said: “The superstructure front, akin to a 1950s Hull trawler, is great for a fair-weather ship but not such a good idea for a global voyager crossing the Atlantic, Pacific, or even rounding the tip of Africa.
“As for financing this ship, there’s £200 million to find and I’d be surprised if the running costs weren’t £5 million a year.”