Boris Johnson’s plan for a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia is “silly populist nonsense”, former chancellor Ken Clarke has said.
Lord Clarke said the £200 million national flagship demonstrates that some in No 10 believe there is “free money” despite the stretched state of the national finances.
Cabinet minister Matt Hancock insists the vessel will pay for itself by boosting British trade with countries where it can dock.
Lord Clarke’s criticism came as official figures showed that government borrowing stood at £24.3 billion in May – down from £43.8 billion a year earlier at the height of the pandemic, but still the second highest figure for the month on record and £18.9 billion more than in 2019.
Conservative peer Lord Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the new vessel is a “complete waste of time, silly populist nonsense” and “we have no money” for it.
“It’s a symptom – £200 million is not going to cause problems, but it shows there are people in No 10 who just think there’s free money and who think that waving a Union Jack and sending yachts and aircraft carriers around the world shows what a great power we are.
“We have no money for that kind of thing.”
But Downing Street rejected the criticism.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Obviously we totally reject that, the new national flagship will boost British trade and drive investment into our economy. It will be used to host high-level trade negotiations, for trade shows, and will sail all over the world promoting British interests.”
No 10 said the initial costs for the ship would be met by the Ministry of Defence, despite it being a trade vessel, with the source of the full funding for the project set out “at a later stage”.
Asked what evidence there was for Mr Hancock’s suggestion it would cover its own costs, the spokesman said: “Well, he was simply referring to the fact that this is a ship that will promote UK trade and drive investment back into our country, so we expect any costs of building and operating the ship will be outweighed by the economic benefits it brings over its 30-year lifespan.”
Asked whether any business groups or exporter organisations had called for a trade vessel, he added: “I don’t have that information to hand but, like I say, we’re confident this is a ship that will be in the interests of British trade.”
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 and is aimed at boosting the Prime Minister’s post-Brexit vision of the UK as a global trading nation.
Health Secretary Mr Hancock rejected Lord Clarke’s criticism of the scheme.
“The amount of investment that you can get in from the rest of the world by showing the best of Britain in harbours the world over is very, very significant,” Mr Hancock told Today.
“And I think we should be getting out there and trading with the world.
“And so I think that a royal yacht is a great idea and I’m very positive about it, because I think it will more than pay for itself many, many times over.”
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