A £250 million scheme to create a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia has been scrapped as part of a squeeze on government spending.
The national flagship plan was sunk by Rishi Sunak’s administration as Whitehall braced for cuts in the November 17 autumn statement by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
The plan was championed by Boris Johnson when he was prime minister, but has faced criticism from MPs at a time when there are other priorities for defence spending.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told MPs on Monday he was prioritising the procurement of the multi-role ocean surveillance ship (MROSS) instead of the flagship.
“In the face of the Russian illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and (Vladimir) Putin’s reckless disregard of international arrangements designed to keep world order, it is right that we prioritise delivering capabilities which safeguard our national infrastructure,” he said.
That meant he had “also directed the termination of the national flagship competition with immediate effect to bring forward the first MROSS ship in its place”.
The vessel had been expected to be constructed in the UK and take to the water in 2024 or 2025, and would have toured the world as a “floating embassy”.
But the Daily Telegraph, which has been campaigning for a replacement for Britannia, reported that the two private consortia bidding for the work were told on Monday morning that the project is being axed.
The Commons Defence Committee warned in 2021 that there was “no evidence of the advantage to the Royal Navy of acquiring the national flagship” and that the initial expenditure of around £250 million, combined with the £20-30 million a year running costs and providing a crew, would pile extra pressure on the senior service.
One of the finalists in the competition was Harland & Wolff. Its chief exectutive, John Wood, said the decision was “disappointing” but added he understood the rationale.
“We are proud that the design our team produced was one of the two finalists in a prestigious programme, which would have been a global showcase of the very best of British shipbuilding and engineering and is testament to the skills that exist within Harland & Wolff and our partners,” he said.
“The National Flagship programme would have contained cutting-edge design and technology to showcase the UK’s shipbuilding heritage, as well as the outstanding innovation we have in this country which is right now being built into current and future vessels.
“We are certain that had the National Flagship gone ahead, the vessel would have returned many multiples of her build cost to the UK economy over many decades, acting as an international demonstration of the creativity and engineering talent the UK has to offer.
“Advances planned for the programme were not just limited to the vessel itself. We had expected to use the National Flagship as the launch platform for green shipbuilding, demonstrating how industry can dramatically reduce its environmental footprint.
“Obviously the decision to suspend the process is disappointing, but we understand the rationale for doing so, considering the current macro-economic environment and the ongoing situation in Ukraine.
“We recognise that the Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, must prioritise their budgets and focus on the most pressing and strategically vital programmes which ensure the defence and security of the realm.”