Government plans for a new ship aiming to extol the virtues of Brexit Britain have been branded as a “complete waste of time” and “silly populist nonsense” by the senior Tory peer Ken Clarke.
With an estimated price tag of £200 million, the former Conservative chancellor dismissed the proposal unveiled by Boris Johnson last month, and urged the government to show “restraint” with public spending.
Just moments earlier, however, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was effusive in his praise of the so-called “royal yacht”, defending the project as a “brilliant idea” and claiming it was “great value for money” in a separate interview.
Asked whether it was a good use of taxpayers’ money, Lord Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Complete waste of time — silly populist nonsense.
“£200 million is not going to cause problems, but it shows there are people in No 10 who just think there’s free money, who think that waving a Union Jack and sending yachts and aircraft carriers around the world shows what a great power we are, we’ve no money for that kind of thing”.
The former Tory MP added: “We do need money to actually improve the quality and availability of social care, but all they are arguing about is how much money we spend to make social care cheaper for wealthy people in order to protect the inheritance of their children. We do need spend money on skills training.”
His comments come amid a row within Whitehall and the Treasury over future spending priorities and how to deal with the extensive bill the government has accrued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with major issues such as reform of the broken social care system yet to be unveiled by No 10.
But asked whether the money being earmarked for the new flagship should be spent elsewhere, Mr Hancock, the health secretary, told Sky News: “I’m obviously not the minister responsible for the royal yacht, but what I can tell you is I think it’s a brilliant idea.
“It’s a brilliant idea because it’s how we can help to sell Britain abroad. You only need to encourage a small amount of trade in order to pay for yacht like this over and over again.”
He added: “By taking the yacht — essentially displaying Britain in countries around the world, in harbours around the world from New York to Singapore, you can sell what is great about this country and great to invest in.
“We’ve got so much to sell. The middle part of the 21st century is a fantastic time for the 21st century if we get this right and I think that making the investment to be able to go and sell Britain around the world is money well spent and I think it will repay itself over and over and over again.
“Although it’s not my area, you can tell I’m an enthusiast for this and I think it’s long overdue and I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re making progress on delivering it because I think it will be great value for money in the narrow sense, but it’s also very, very important that we sell Britain around the world.”
Speaking last month, Mr Johnson suggested the new ship would help the UK seize post-Brexit trading opportunities and reflect the UK’s “burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation.
He added: “Every aspect… from its build to the businesses it showcases onboard will represent and promote the best of British – a clear and powerful symbol of our commitment to be an active player on the world stage.”
It is thought British businesses will be able to promote their products on the ship, which will sail all over the world, hosting trade shows and high-level negotiations alongside promoting British interests.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said later on Tuesday that the Ministry of Defence would cover the initial costs of procuring the flagship, but said it was yet to be decided how the final price-tag - unofficially estimated at £200m - would be covered.
Responding to Mr Clarke’s dismissal of the scheme as “silly populist nonsense”, the spokesperson 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 and trade shows and will sail all over the world promoting British interests.”
The spokesperson was unable to provide any detailed economic analysis to support Mr Hancock’s claim that the boat will “pay for itself many times over”.
But he said: “He was simply referring to the fact that this is a ship that will promote UK trade and drive investment back into our country. We expect any costs of building and operating this ship will be outweighed by the economic benefits it brings over its 30-year lifespan.”
The spokesperson said he had “no information to hand” about whether any trade and business organisations had lobbied the government to commission the boat.
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