Royal yacht taxes Labour minds

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The Independent Online
After twelve hours of complete confusion, Labour yesterday reaffirmed that it would not be spending any taxpayers' money on the replacement for the Royal Yacht, Britannia.

But last night a spokesman for Tony Blair's office said: "We are not ruling out for ever spending a penny on the royal yacht. We are not saying never ever a penny." Nothing could have been clearer than the guidance offered on Saturday; that Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, had sent a message to the Queen, who is said to be unhappy at being in the centre of a political tug-of-war, letting it be known that Labour would not honour last week's Tory pledge to pay for a new pounds 60m yacht.

For good measure, and to firm up the non-attributable briefing given by Mr Brown's office, the defence spokesman John Reid went on BBC television on Saturday night to add: "We are saying that we will not fund, out of public expenditure, pounds 60m on a royal yacht when there are demands like health and education."

But there was a more equivocal line from Tony Blair's office, with one source suggesting that no one had said there would be no government money at all for the royal yacht.

Yesterday morning, Alistair Darling, shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Labour's spending axeman, went on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost to give the definitive Labour view - a reflection of the leader's line.

Frost's question was clear enough: "You have in this case, according to the stories, specifically decided that the royal yacht should not be part of your spending?" Mr Darling replied: "No, what we have said ... "

Frost interrupted: "You haven't. Oh, it's not..." Mr Darling continued, saying that the yacht had to be considered alongside other projects in education and the health service, but he did not rule out government spending.

That prompted Frost to ask: "So contrary though, Alistair, to the leaks yesterday to the papers, this decision has not been made and there may be taxpayers' money under Labour spent on Britannia?"

In spite of his frontbench colleague's appearance on BBC television news the night before, Mr Darling said: "Well, I do wish these people who write these stories would actually come and ask, rather than rely on leaks and so on."

Mr Darling later apologised for any confusion, indicating that there would indeed be no taxpayers' money for a royal yacht under Labour.

He said there was no money set aside for a royal yacht in Labour's spending plans for its first two years in office and, after that, it would have to take its chances against other, competing claims in health and education.

However, Labour would also be looking at other means of financing the replacement; a clear hint that private finance would be sought.

"I'm normally as clear as day," Mr Darling told The Independent. "I'm sorry if there was any confusion."

Last night, the line was that there was no budget for a royal yacht in Labour's first two-year spending plans. After that, the project would have to compete with education and health and, therefore, private finance would be sought.

But that did not mean that no taxpayers' money would be spent by a Labour Government on a royal yacht.