UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial £250m “trade yacht” is to be deemed to have a “national security” role, in a move that would allow it to be built in a British shipyard without going out to international tender.
Ministers have been looking at ways to get around a World Trade Organization agreement signed by the UK last year that commits to putting civilian shipbuilding contracts out to international competition.
The agreement exempts warships, but as an unarmed vessel the yacht does not qualify. Its principal purpose is to act as a floating venue for trade fairs and diplomatic receptions.
The Ministry of Defence said it had identified a carve out for the “national flagship” from the WTO rules on national security grounds and would fit the vessel with security and communications equipment.
One official briefed on the plans said the ship, which is expected to cost between £200m and £250m, could play an intelligence gathering role, but the MoD denied that was the intention or that it would carry surveillance equipment.
“There are no plans for the national flagship to have an intelligence gathering capability,” the MoD said. Any suggestion that the vessel was a spy ship could make it unwelcome in territorial waters.
The MoD said the ship would have standard security and communications features, given that it would host high-level delegates, but refused to say they were “for security reasons”.
An international design competition for the yacht has been launched, but ministers insist it must be built in Britain. They argue it will help to achieve foreign policy and security objectives by hosting diplomatic events.
The vessel, a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia which was retired in 1997, is intended to come into service in 2025. It is a civilian vessel but will be crewed by the Royal Navy and funded out of the defence budget.
Johnson said in May: “This new national flagship will be the first vessel of its kind in the world, reflecting the UK’s burgeoning status as a great independent, maritime trading nation.”
The yacht’s geographical limitations — it would be unable to reach inland cities including Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid and Moscow — have already led some to question its diplomatic value.
Emily Thornberry, shadow trade secretary, said the government was scrabbling around to find a justification for exempting the construction of the civilian vessel from international competition.
“This is only necessary because they failed to include a blanket exemption for shipbuilding when they signed us up to the WTO’s government procurement agreement. It is waste and incompetence on a staggeringly epic scale,” she said.
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