A £250 million scheme to create a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia has been scrapped in response to a Whitehall spending squeeze and Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
The national flagship plan was sunk by Rishi Sunak’s administration as funding is prioritised on measures designed to bolster protection against Russia.
The plan was championed by Boris Johnson when he was prime minister, but was dismissed as a “vanity project” by critics.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told MPs he was prioritising the procurement of the multi-role ocean surveillance (MROS) ship 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”.
Mr Wallace told MPs the MROSs would “protect sensitive defence infrastructure and civil infrastructure” and “improve our ability to detect threats to the seabed and cables”.
The attack on the Nord Stream pipelines, which the UK believes the Kremlin orchestrated, has demonstrated the potential vulnerability of underwater infrastructure.
Two MROS ships will be operated by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the first of which will be handed over in January 2023, several months ahead of schedule.
Downing Street acknowledged that the state of the public finances was a factor in the decision.
“With Russia’s ongoing illegal war, it is right that we prioritise our capabilities,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
The multi-role ocean surveillance ships will protect undersea cable and pipelines which is “obviously of particular interest at the moment”.
“As a result the MoD has prioritised their spending and are terminating the flagship competition,” the spokesman said.
The Prime Minister “thinks it is right to prioritise at a time when difficult spending decisions need to be made” and “finances are tight”.
Shadow defence secretary John Healey welcomed the news that the “previous prime minister’s vanity project” has been scrapped and the spending switched to “purposes that will help defend the country”.
The flagship had been expected to be constructed in the UK and take to the water in 2024 or 2025, and the Government hoped it would tour 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.
John Wood, chief executive of Harland & Wolff – one of the bidders, said: “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 added: “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.”
But he suggested that “given the global trade that can be driven to the UK by a vessel like this we do expect that a vessel of this type – either government or privately owned – will come back to the table in the future and we remain ready to assist at that time”.
Rear Admiral Rex Cox, CEO of the National Shipbuilding Office, said: “The National Flagship project showcased the talent of the UK’s maritime industry and I am grateful to all those bidders who took part.”
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.