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The price tag on Boris’s Johnson’s controversial “trade yacht” has already jumped by as much as £100m before the contract to build it has even been awarded, the UK defence secretary admitted on Wednesday.
Ben Wallace said in a speech to launch the project that the vessel was likely to cost “between £200m and £250m on a firm price”. His comments come just over a week after the Ministry of Defence issued its formal invitation to tender that stated the “total available budget” was £150m.
The prime minister announced plans for the new “national flagship” in May as a way to promote British business around the world, with the aim of getting it in service by late 2025.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said Johnson had lost control of his “vanity yacht” and said Labour would scrap the project if in power. “It is absolutely staggering that costs have rocketed by £100 million in a week,” he said.
One official said the two figures were different because the £150m budget was a “target figure for industry” while the £250m figure was “to ensure no overspend”.
The higher figure is now more than double the £120m estimate produced by 50 Tory MPs who were pushing for the scheme three years ago. The project has been criticised as “silly populist nonsense” by former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke.
“I am calling on you, our nation’s finest shipbuilders, to come forward — or perhaps I should say ‘muster’ — and to help us design and build a new National Flagship,” Wallace said in the speech in Greenwich in east London, adding that the competition would run until the end of October with the winners announced in December.
Wallace cited the Cutty Sark — the Victorian clipper ship now housed at Greenwich — as an example of Britain’s great maritime history.
“Our new national flagship will be the ‘jewel in the crown’ of our upcoming national shipbuilding strategy,” he said. “I want this ship to be at the vanguard of the 21st century shipping technology.”
The desire by ministers to build the ship in the UK would in theory fall foul of a World Trade Organization agreement struck by ministers only last year, experts have warned.
Ministers failed to exclude the construction of commercial vessels from the list of contracts that must be opened to global competition when it signed the WTO “government procurement agreement” (GPA) covering 48 countries last October.
However the government is hoping to get around that rule by claiming the trade yacht is a military vessel — putting the Ministry of Defence in charge of the project and crewing it with 80 Royal Navy sailors who will have firearms training.
The plans to have the defence ministry run the £250m project comes as it struggles to balance the books on the defence budget despite a boost last autumn.
The Royal Navy has just 18 large warships and the Times revealed half of those are out of action undergoing maintenance. The shortage of destroyers and frigates forced the UK to ask the US and Dutch navies to provide ships to bolster the task force that is protecting the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier on its first operational deployment.
Some ministers reportedly want to call the new vessel “Prince Philip”, after the late Duke of Edinburgh. Enthusiasts for the project see the ship as a replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was the Queen’s personal ship from 1954 to 1997 until it was decommissioned.
But the Sunday Times reported that Prince Charles and Prince William have distanced themselves from the project with palace insiders saying that none of the royal family want to use the vessel.