Five glaring issues about the announcement of the ‘new national flagship’ prestige procurement

2nd June 2021

You may think that after that botched ferry contract that the government would steer clear from further Brext-related maritime procurements.

Then the chair of the public accounts committee said:

‘The Department for Transport waited until September 2018 to start thinking about the risks to freight transport across these important routes and entered into a £13.8m contract with Seaborne Freight despite it being a new operation, owning no ferries, and not having binding contracts to use the specified ports.

‘We will be pressing the Department for answers on how it awarded its three new ferry contracts, what it is doing to manage risks and exactly what it intends to do now it has axed the contract with Seaborne.’

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You would be wrong, for the government has now announced a new procurement exercise, the cost of which is reported to be currently set at £200 million – that is about fifteen times more expensive than those non-existent ferries.

It is a curiously worded announcement – and should be read carefully in full.

Here are five observations about what the announcement says – and does not say – about this prestige project – from my perspective as a former central government public procurement lawyer.

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There is no mention of the royalty in the announcement.

Given previous attempts at such a flagship have said that it would be a new ‘royal yacht’, this must be a deliberate omission.

One would not accidentally fail to mention that the new ship was to be a royal yacht and have royal blessing if such things were true.

Indeed, the glaring omission in the announcement indicates that the announcement is a negotiated document, where the wording has been subject to intense consideration and internal discussions and approvals.

And so, although the Crown is prevalent in the polity of the United Kingdom – from underpinning the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, royal charter bodies, the maintenance of the queen’s peace and the armed services – there appears to be one thing the royalty does not want to be connected with, and that is this ship.

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The second omission is that the announcement does not say – expressly – which government department will be responsible for procuring (and/or commissioning) and – as importantly – maintaining the ship.

The announcement hints that it may be the Ministry of Defence – and there is mention that ‘the ship will be crewed by the Royal Navy’.

And given that the MoD is the one government department with the experience and resources to procure and maintain such a ship then this would be its natural administrative berth.

But the announcement does not say – expressly – that it will be under the MoD, and the purpose of the vessel does not appear to be a military one.

And there is no particular reason why the MoD – with its own budget constraints – would want to be given the costs of procuring and maintaining a ship with no obvious military purpose or value.

If – and it is an ‘if’ – the ship is to be procured and maintained by another government department, but with an agreement with the MoD for the use of the Royal Navy for crewing the ship, then we have the prospect of Whitehall (ahem) surf-wars over which department will be responsible in the event of any problems.

And prestige procurement projects do tend to have problems.

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A third omission from the announcement is about which suppliers will be responsible for the whole-life maintenance of the ship.

The announcement states that a ‘tendering process for the design and construction of the ship will launch shortly’ – but there is no mention of any similar tender exercise for the upkeep and repairs to the ship over its expected thirty-year service.

Given that this ship is (intended to be) a bespoke construction, the question of ensuring that there are sufficient arrangements for its ongoing maintenance is just as important as the initial design and construction.

A plausible scenario is that a bespoke ship is designed and constructed but its service life is severely limited as no thought had been put into what happens next with such a bespoke construction.

Another plausible scenario is that the costs of maintenance and repair over thirty years come to be far higher than the costs of the initial design and construction.

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A fourth omission is any evidence that the practicalities of this procurement exercise have been thought-through.

For instance, there is no explanation as to why it would not be more cost-effective to refit or to purchase an existing off-the-wharf (ahem) ship and to convert that ship for the envisaged purpose.

Indeed, there is no mention of any business case at all for this specially designed and constructed flagship.

There is also no mention of the role, if any, of private finance – and if there is to be a private sector element, who will bear the risk of any commercial problems.

And this, of all projects, will be too big a project to sink.

There is also no mention of what would happen if (which is conceivable) it would be cost-effective for the ship to be designed by a United Kingdom company but (which is also conceivable) it would not be cost-effective for that ship to be constructed in the United Kingdom.

Could we have a repeat of the (for some) embarrassing ‘blue passports’ situation – where a tender for another prestige Brexit project was awarded to a foreign company?

Although the announcement waxes lyrically about the procurement in that the ‘intention is to build the ship in the UK … help drive a renaissance in the UK’s shipbuilding industry and showcase the best of British engineering around the world’ the government does not know – and cannot know – at this stage whether any value for money tender would result in the ship being constructed in the United Kingdom.

(And as this would seem to be a civil rather than a defence procurement, there are also potential issues about excluding external suppliers from this high-value tender exercise.)

The envisaged timings also seem rather ambitious.

Although carefully worded, this announcement is currently more of a press release than any serious public procurement proposal.

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Finally: £200 million pounds is, for this purpose, not that much – even if whole-life costs are excluded.

Indeed, one could imagine a considerable amount of such a budget being taken up by the to-and-fro of getting instructions and approvals for the design of this bespoke vessel.

Imagine: ‘the prime minister’s office thinks the wallpaper for the main conference room looks too cheap’ and so on.

And the recently reported ‘super-yacht’ of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is estimated to be costing $500 million – which in sterling would be considerably more than the reported £200 million.

This new flagship may end up being the smallest ship in a harbour, with dot-com billionaires, oil-wealthy rulers and assorted oligarchs waving down at it from their super-duper yachts.

It may well be that to really impress the international business community, we are going to need a bigger boat.

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Prestige public procurement projects often fail – because they are commenced for non-commercial purposes and without thinking foreseeable risks through, and when those foreseeable problems do arise, too much political capital has been invested for the project to then be seen to fail.

The better way, of course, for the United Kingdom to ‘showcase’ here its post-Brexit seriousness about trade and business would be to have a sensible and realistic procurement exercise – including showing that the government is unafraid to pull a project if it does not make commercial sense.

A project that instead ‘showcases’ the commercial ineptitude of the United Kingdom will not help but will hinder our post-Brexit trading future.

But this sort of constructive criticism will be dismissed as doomstering and gloomstering and that voters do not want such negativity.

So those of us who want a more sensible and realistic approach from the United Kingdom to its post-Brexit future are going to need a bigger vote.

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110 thoughts on “Five glaring issues about the announcement of the ‘new national flagship’ prestige procurement”

  1. The MOD may be the one government Department “that has the experience and resources to procure and maintain such a ship” but any regular reader of Private Eye will also know the MOD has a very long and woeful history of ill-conceived and execrably executed procurements with regular overspends in the billions. But on the other hand it is a very useful revolving door for senior civil servants and senior Armed Forces officers to lucratively metamorphose from gamekeepers to poachers in the private sector. One does wonder whether members of this Administration can think through anything other than their own and their friends’ advancement and enrichment.

  2. I appreciate that it’s not the purpose of your post, but the truth is that this project, if it ever comes to fruition, is the worst kind of Brexit tokenism. Someone on Twitter has already made the good point that £200m would be far better spent on paying good annual salaries for a number of years to a team of experienced and capable trade negotiators, who would do far more good for our economy than this vanity project, which will no doubt end up costing far more than £200m anyway. What a strange, bad, place the UK is sailing to!

    1. We are talking about a minimum of £200m to build the vessel and, heaven knows, how much for the running costs.

      We might use some of that money, alongside what you propose, to beef up the skills and number of staff in our Embassies around the world dedicated to promoting UK trade and industry.

      I gather there have been issues in the past with both the competence and capacity of the Diplomatic Service in that line of work.

        1. With regard to costs, others making comments to DAG’s post have noted that HMY Britannia was meant to be a hospital ship and did indeed serve that role during the Falklands war (although there appears from the comments so e uncertainty whether that conversion was strightforward). That a hospital ship might be needed for carriers would appear logical and could have been used as a justification for this new Smallish-non-Royal-Yacht.

          1. Are you sure that Britannia served during the Falklands War? I understood that the vessel was deemed unsuitable and the MOD chartered, and converted, the educational cruise ship Uganda for the role of hospital ship.

          2. However she played a key role in the evacuation of Aden in 1986, so it’s not true to say she’s only ever been used for state duties even if that was more by luck than planning.

            The carriers have their own small hospitals, and RFA Argus is the RN’s main hospital ship with 100 beds (although technically can’t be called a hospital ship as she is armed) but she won’t carry on for much longer.

  3. It doesn’t take that level of investment to demonstrate the UK’s ineptitude; it is on display in bright lights. This project needs to go the way of BJ’s other vanity fantasies. Deep six.

  4. Much to consider in your post, David, and all points well made.

    One thing I’d add is that if Johnson thinks that this vanity project is a particularly good wheeze, someone needs to remind him that this is a floating idea that will be particularly vulnerable to attack from all quarters, not just the electorate, and in its fruition may ‘tank’ very easily if, e.g. the Ruskis, have a notion to make a point.

    Brenda does well to keep well away from it.

  5. Would another option at point four be to lease a vessel as and when required?

    Of course, if one leased a ship moored in Singapore Harbour, one might as well, instead, take exhibition and conference space and accommodation in a local hotel.

    1. My flippant response to that is to mention the current Mrs Johnson leading the trend by hiring her wedding dress, but in addition to clothing serviced leasing is something that the aviation and even the construction sector are moving towards. It shares the risk and gives the supplier an incentive to build a more reliable product as they have to cover the maintenance costs.

      I wonder if the cost of regular refits has been costed in, otherwise it will be a time capsule rather than showcase.

    2. This is quite possible, and it has happened previously within MoD procurement planning.
      In the early 2000s three vessels which were privately-funded by industry, were then leased to the Royal Navy for an initial five-year term.
      They’re still active today.

      1. If that’s a reference to the Batch 1 Rivers – they may be active today but they are no longer leased, they were bought in 2012.

        Like PFI, the leases were only in place to get round Brown’s rules at the Treasury – it effectively pushed a whole lot of debt from the government balance sheet to companies. But companies can’t borrow as cheaply as government so it works out more expensive, and the Treasury is now more flexible about how money is spent rather than micromanaging which year it is spent in.

        There’s been a general presumption against these kinds of deals since the Coalition, and new PFIs were formally ended in 2018, so I doubt you’d see a River-style deal again.

        As to Claire’s point about risk-sharing, that happens quite a bit at the subsystem level. These days the contract will be for eg x hours of jet engine use, and it’s up to Rolls-Royce to work out the cheapest way to generate that, trading off eg designing a more expensive component that doesn’t need replacing versus maintaining a stock of cheaper ones that don’t last as long.

  6. Nice piece and good puns. You missed the opportunity to describe the possible finance options as including Public-Private-Partner-Ship. If PPP was less discredited at present, this would have been a prime project for that sort of thing of course. Likely, it would be structured as an availability project with scope for plenty of third party income generation between committed periods of UK trade duties.

  7. The lack of a business case is, perhaps, not unsurprising, given Boris Johnson’s track record with iconic projects.

    The Garden Bridge project being a case in point. These extracts are from Architect’s Journal article on 15th October 2019:

    “A new report by the London Assembly has accused former mayor Boris Johnson, Transport for London (TfL) and the Garden Bridge Trust of a ‘reckless’ use of public money, heaping pressure on Parliament to investigate.

    The report concluded that the risks of the Thomas Heatherwick-designed scheme were ‘downplayed’ by TfL to satisfy the former mayor.”

    “The report said that at the board’s subsequent meeting on 14 January, chair of the trustees Mervyn Davies discussed the prospects for signing the construction contract but advised fellow trustees not to read the contract in full.

    Instead, Davies suggested they make their decision based on a summary report because ‘issues arise when trustees with little or no experience are asked to submerge themselves into something that they may not fully comprehend’.

    Nevertheless, the report noted, some trustees expressed concern that the trust might be acting in a ‘reckless’ manner in signing the contract, given that they still did not have full funds in the bank and that the project was facing 22 significant risks.”

    I was gobsmacked when I read those last three paragraphs. I could well imagine the reaction had I, as the chair of governors of a secondary school, told my colleagues that they were not competent to assess the project on which we were deliberating and that they should just back it.

    Boris Johnson’s cavalier approach to such projects bends out of shape the very processes needed to at least try and deliver them.

    Vague technical solutions were once in the offing to defuse the SS Richard Montgomery, preparatory to building the Boris Island Airport in the Thames.

    In 2012, a spokesman for Boris Johnson said, “Clearly the wreck of the SS Montgomery would need to be considered however some of Britain’s finest engineers have already closely studied the area and concluded it would not prevent construction of an airport.”

    Are these the finest engineers who will be designing and building the HBS Free Enterprise?

    A 2004 report by the New Scientist stated, if the sunken ship did explode it would be one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts ever.

    Johnson has for years never had a lot of time for experts with whom he disagrees. That does not bode well for his latest vanity project.

      1. “Dahling, of course I’d love to break a bottle of Bolly across the bows of your little boat. Pity about our bridge, but, hey, can’t win them all as I said to Pat Macnee, some time or other.”

  8. There are a couple of shipyards left who could build a boat, so far so good, but one way in which the new vessel could “showcase the best of British engineering” is in the choice of main engines. Sadly, there isn’t anyone in the UK who could build anything suitable now, so if this floating vanity project ever gets built, it will almost certainly be propelled by Finnish or German engines.

  9. It would be nice to think that in terms of ‘national representation’ – and one that isn’t a grey funnel warship – that someone (!) has considered whether our National Flagship should be a tall ship.

    Say, something like this – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabab_Oman_II – coming in at £100m, slotting into an existing fleet where their floating ambassador status is much respected, manned by the young people of the UK, and in the case of this particular vessel putting us in the same league, sizewise, as Oman, the Netherlands, Brazil and possibly China. It also comes in the category of ‘sail training’, which the UK is already very good at.

  10. Further to some of the thoughts regarding the business case above, let’s do some guesstimating on how value for money on this lovely ship might work out, because value for money is going to be a problem.
    The UK would be buying a big yacht. If a yacht costs GPB200m for 30 years, and has a (conservative) 10m p.a. operating cost, that’s a lifetime cost of 500m, or GBP17m p.a.
    What do we actually get for that?: High end accommodation for guests at our trading hubs.

    How much?
    Well, we’re now really starting to guess, but: Obviously this fine vessel would spend a lot of time moving between destinations. Most guests would not join for ocean cruises but on harbor stays (one presumes busy trade reps can’t be seen to take 3-week ocean jollies with a foreign power). So we get maybe 120 days a year in port, hosting visitors.

    How many? A 100m yacht would usually be fitted to take about.. 30 guests? (you could obviously cram in more but then you lose the exclusivity). Of these of course a number, maybe a third would be British hosts. So maybe 20 foreign, ‘target’ guests at a time?
    So that’s 120 nights x 20 guests = 2,400 guest nights a year for GBP16.7m.

    That works out at GBP7,000 per *guest* (not room) *per night*.

    That’s some serious hotel suites, that you can get for that money…(also the hotel suites wouldn’t ever need ferociously expensive frigate escort and/or Marine detachment, which this vessel might need if it ever gets near places with the kind of rapscallions who like to attack symbols of Western power).

    Obviously as a lovely side benefit Cabinet Ministers, nay, Prime Ministers, SpAds and Royalty *could* join for the ocean cruising, but I don’t think there’s really a field for that in the business case benefits section.

  11. I can wait until all the ‘haters’ see the new trade treaty with Australia being signed on the deck of the Boris Boat in Canberra.

    1. It can maybe bring back a few hundred manky Aussie cattle too – start the damage early, y’know?

    2. Given how long it will take to build the boat, that would mean the trade deal wouldn’t be signed for – well, rather a long time.

      1. Tigs’ Brexit Unicorn will doubtless be great company for him until The Glorious Day…

    3. Canberra is 200 kilometres from the ocean.
      It doesn’t even have a river to speak of.
      I expect Lake Burleigh Griffin could accommodate the boat but getting it there for a signing ceremony really would be a world beating achievement of Fitzcaraldo proportions.

  12. It’s not clear to me why a trade fair should be held on a ship rather than in a conference centre or hotel. In fact I’m sure we can all think of reasons to the contrary.

  13. A ship is a poor investment as far as being a showcase is concerned because it will quickly be out of date. It’s service life from that point of view could only amount to a handful of years at best, after which it would become an extremely expensive white elephant.

    1. an extremely expensive white elephant.

      Which is, ironically, also an accurate description of the current PM…

  14. Pedants corner. Seems everyone is using a metaphor of a metaphor in calling this a “flagship”. We already have a flagship. It’s the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

    1. To be really pedantic, HMS Victory is the flagship whilst HMS Queen Elizabeth is Fleet Flagship (and we don’t prefix HMS with ‘the’).

      1. Being even more pedantic, a flagship belongs to a particular flag officer. Victory is the flagship of the First Sea Lord.

        1. Why don’t we just refloat Victory – I am sure that Boris would be able to find an expert who could come up with ideas for making her seaworthy in a jiffy and she would add a nice antique feel to “Global Britain”.

  15. Johnson wins votes by exuding cheerful optimism. It serves him very well, with voters not liking to be told that the country has nothing to be optimistic about. So the core of this scheme isn’t to build a boat, but to be talking about building something. By the time the idea is quietly dropped, like the bridge to Norther Ireland or the airport, he’ll have moved on to touting another hare-brained scheme.

    His big mistake with the Garden Bridge was to let it get too close to fruition, so that the problems became apparent and he was tarnished by association with it. Even more so with the new London buses, which actually got built and are widely loathed. He’s unlikely to make that mistake again, so we can expect future projects to be consistently implausible.

    1. I wish I shared your optimism that Johnson learns enough from his mistakes to avoid repeating them.

  16. We already have a bigger boat, which carries aircraft. Mostly other people’s aircraft though. To China, which has the world’s largest navy, because we haven’t forgotten our “East of Suez” possessions such as the Chagos Islands and Pitcairn. Sad that we can’t do anything about Hong Kong though.

    Sadly the rest of the Royal Navy is reduced to only a couple of amphibious warfare vessels, six destroyers, 13 frigates, 11 submarines, and some patrol craft.

    Let us hope this ridiculous toy ship is at least as successful as the other major projects of the prime booster, such as his ever-popular “New Routemaster” bus or Dangleway, let alone the Garden Bridge, estuary airport, or bridges across the channel or to Northern Ireland.

    Next, a Red White and Blue mission … to the moon!

    1. We even had dropped the frigates from 13 to 11,
      They need some upgrading and maintenance rather than spend the money and then replace in the 2030’s we are taking 2 out of service.

      A spare £200 million might pay for the maintenance or crew or both but some people have other priorities

      1. You may know better than me, Dan, when the Type 26s and Type 31s are expected to come into service, but as I understand it the plan is to take the Type 23s out of service from 2023 at a rate of about one per year. Five of them were in refit at the same time in December (for much the same reason as why we need three or four ballistic submarines to keep one on patrol) …

        Once you’ve created one or two carrier battle groups, and allowed for maintenance and refit, there very little left in the locker.

  17. Brilliant idea – so now we’re only interested in selling ourselves to countries with a coastline, right?

  18. It’s a floating garden bridge – let’s see how many millions are wasted before someone cancels it.

  19. Taking a step back, one has to ask what is the vessel designed to deliver in terms of tangible outcomes for British business?

    The first step in a Treasury Green Book appraisal is to provide the rationale for intervention. Appraisal is a two-stage process, the first stage of which is the consideration of a long list of option choices and the selection of a rational and viable set of options for shortlist analysis. The second stage in appraisal is shortlist analysis using social cost benefit analysis or social cost effectiveness analysis.

    As an aside, I gather there is some evidence that past voyages by HMY Britannia actually saw fall offs in trade with those countries at which the ship docked. On a par with the risks once associated with receiving an enterprise award from the hands of John Major when he was Prime Minister.

    One should, though, be wary of lapsing into a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    “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,” says Boris Johnson

    No other sovereign nation has felt the need to have a ship dedicated to the purpose of promoting its trade and industry, including Japan, a trading nation made up of islands with a proud maritime tradition?

    The Royal Navy trained the Japanese Imperial Navy that blew the Russian Imperial Fleets out of the water back in 1905.

    Which begs the question. Why has a nation like Japan not had an unarmed, publicly funded vessel dedicated to promoting its trade around the world (and why have we not had one before now)?

    The ship is as much for use by British business as the British Government, but British business has not felt the need to build and operate such a vessel?

    May be they have found better ways to represent and promote the best of British around the world that provide greater returns for them in the medium to long term?

    Perhaps Boris Johnson should ask British business what they want, a novel concept for him admittedly as his ongoing prosecution of Brexit displays, rather than expecting them to cheerfully use his latest pipe dream at some unspecified date in the future?

    And, is not four years at a minimum a long time to wait for:

    “a clear and powerful symbol of our commitment to be an active player on the world stage.”

    A British aircraft carrier comes with lots of physical presence; armed matelots and Royal Marines; abundant conference space and meeting rooms; excellent communications facilities; a range of accommodation to suit all levels of status; plenty of empty aircraft hangers below the flight deck, well out of the elements and a great place to land the helicopters and aeroplanes necessary to fly world leaders to and from their capital cities. The overwhelming majority of capital cities around the world are not on a sea coast.

    Although, few places around the world are more than a thousand miles from the sea.

    Which is fine if you are the captain of a hunter killer submarine armed with cruise missiles rather than the skipper of a glorified floating gin palace.

    I remain convinced that Boris Johnson dreams of being piped aboard the HMS Elizabeth in Singapore Harbour.

    One is inclined to think there is no market failure to address in the concept as sketched out by Number Ten and, therefore, no grounds to commit public money to such a project.

    “Market failure occurs where, a market is unable to function fairly according to the economic ideas of efficient markets, from a (Treasury) Green Book perspective which looks beyond simply economic efficiency this means the market is unable to provide satisfactory levels of welfare efficiency.”

    “There is not always a hard and fast dividing line to identify the degree of welfare inefficiency in markets.”

    Let us for sake of argument, though, discover that many British businesses would like a floating conference and exhibition facility with good quality accommodation; a free licensed bar; Cordon Bleu cuisine with of a necessity plenty of foreign ingredients; and, of course, silver service and butlering to Jeevesian standards. But practical problems around funding, co-ordination etc have made it an impossible project to even commence.

    Grounds perhaps for Government co-ordination and partial funding with a significant input into the design of the vessel by potential users. There is no point in designing and building something that those folk will find impracticable to use.

    Of course, the greater involvement by British business, the more workmanlike, and mundane will be the final design. Not something likely to appeal to Boris Johnson as:

    “A typical six month itinerary for the flagship might include docking at a port in a country where a British Prime Ministerial visit is taking place to accommodate parallel discussions between British and local businesses, hosting trade fairs to sell British products to an emerging market and providing the venue for an international ministerial summit or major trade negotiations between the UK and another government.”

    I think we are asking more of the vessel than might be achievable within a single hull without considering the particular security issues around hosting UK and foreign politicians, diplomats and civil servants alongside the likes of the chair of Acme Whistles, who is, by all accounts, a very nice chap.

    Ever more problems come to mind that would complicate the final procurement process. And the design would definitely need signing off before that was started. Would a single tender process, given the few shipbuilders likely to have the capacity to build such a ship be legal?

    If we get private sector buy in, we should insist on the potential users committing to match the Government funding, at least pound for pound, giving us a minimum project budget of £400m (cost plus or fixed cost?) for the build and expect users to contribute to the running costs through a combination of pay as you go and annual subscription fees.

    We now have a more credible capital budget and a contribution to the future running costs. And if not enough British businesses will commit to the upfront and long term funding then there is clearly no great demand for an ocean-going vessel to promote their businesses.

    There would be no market failure to address.

    And if that proved to be the case then we are just left with yet another Boris Johnson vanity project.

    All fur coat and no knickers as we say here in Birmingham.

    Acme Whistles (of Aston, Birmingham)?

    The company designed and produced the whistles, used by officers and crew on the SS Titanic.

    Would their products, still made right here in Birmingham, be wanted on the maiden voyage of the HBS Free(loading) Enterprise?

    1. Good points, but maybe it could be addressed by re-purposing one of the proposed Dreadnought class nuclear submarines. Not only would security concerns be addressed, a fully loaded nuclear missile would no doubt concentrate minds in any trade negotiation harking back to joyful days of UK imperial gunboat diplomacy

  20. Is it a gift for Iain Duncan Smith? So he can “be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again…”?

    1. Getting lost in the Rhodesian bush …

      No, sorry, that never happened, because Lieutenant Iain Duncan Smith of the Scots Guards was kept in the map room in Salisbury during the time that Southern Rhodesia gained its independence.

      It has been alleged that his superiors feared what might befall him if he left the capital.

  21. Let me say from the start, that I am sceptical about the value of a dedicated trade ship. I’ve no idea how they make the business case stack up other than “x% of £ybn contracts”, mumble mumble. The PM has some track record in ignoring business cases for political showboating. But given the premise, some comments –

    Buying new is a feature not a bug, it’s all tied up with the government’s plans for shipbuilding in general. Which are still a work in progress but somebody has clearly decided that it’s an iconic sector that appeals to focus groups, even if Korea can build “bog-standard” cargo ships at a third of the price of the West. Conventional wisdom is that the opportunities for the West are in the more specialist added-value areas like cruise ships (umm, well, not until Covid is a memory), offshore oil (umm – net zero?) and the like.

    The background is that the 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy White Paper recognised that HMG wasn’t going to need enough warships to sustain more than one military shipbuilder. This led to the merger of the existing yards in 2009 under the infamous Terms of Business Agreement whereby the private sector guaranteed to maintain a minimum shipbuilding capability and do all the unpopular “restructuring” that was needed, in return for the MoD giving them exclusivity on warship building and effectively guaranteeing them either orders or payments in lieu.

    Obviously the MoD never planned to pay the latter, but when they dithered over the design of the Type 26 frigate, they ended up with a gap in the pipeline. So, faced with paying BAe £100m’s regardless, they had to order some extra patrol ships just to keep the yards busy.

    That led to the MoD’s 2017 National Shipbuilding Strategy, with the intention that the admirals decided what ships got built rather than the contract lawyers. But there were still some gaps between the ambition and budgets, so this year the MoD has come up with the wheeze of grabbing all shipbuilding budgets across government to fit into a new shipbuilding strategy. It’s still a work in progress – about the only tangible outcome so far is that the Defence Secretary is now calling himself the “Shipbuilding Tsar”, he gave a few hints of what that would mean in a speech a few weeks ago :
    https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/a-speech-by-the-defence-secretary-at-the-society-of-maritime-industries-annual-conference

    “our strategy is going to be much more wide-ranging. It will no longer be primarily about hulls but about looking right across the shipbuilding enterprise, from naval and commercial shipbuilding to systems and sub-systems. Secondly, we’re going to be sending you a much clearer demand signal about what we’re trying to achieve with our procurement programmes – for the first time releasing a 30-year pipeline of all Government vessel procurements over 150 tons. This will encompass not just military vessels but all ships including those procured by Home Office, DFT, Defra, BEIS and the Scottish government. The strategy will also deliver for all parts of the UK, building on the proud traditions of shipbuilding in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We’re going to be letting you know our policy and technology priorities for shipbuilding. What green capabilities we’re after to achieve our net zero commitments. And **how we will take account of the social value of shipbuilding** when making appraisals.”

    If you’re wondering what ships BEIS have, they’re the ultimate parent of the British Antarctic Survey, whose newest research ship is the £200m, 15000t, RRS Sir David Attenborough (“Boaty McBoatface”).

    So if the details of the procurement of this new ship are missing, that’s because they’re still working out how anything will work under the new shipbuilding strategy. But I’m sure the Shipbuilding Tsar will welcome the extra £200m from the magic money tree.

    Post Brexit, we’re no longer required to compete non-warships outside the UK, and I think any likely builder would be aware of the political sensitivities of building outside the UK.. You can get some hints from the details of the much-delayed Fleet Solid Support ships procurement, released a few days ago
    “The successful bidder can work in partnership with international companies but would be required to integrate the ships in a UK shipyard.”
    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/fleet-solid-support-ships-competition-launched

    So building new is the whole point of this – the MoD has quite a bit of experience of converting civilian ships. The ice patrol ship HMS Protector, formerly MV Polarbjørn, is the most recent example; RFA Argus was originally a container ship requisitioned for the Falklands. And under Brown’s Treasury they messed around with leasing, such as for the Batch 1 River-class patrol vessels, but they bought them when the lease expired in 2012 as the Treasury was by then allowing more consideration of lifetime cost rather than how something fitted into a single year’s budget.

    Support is something that’s traditionally been a bit of an afterthought but the MoD now has a rule (since Hammond IIRC?) that all acquisitions must come with a 10-year support package. But you don’t sign a support contract now when the ship might not be delivered til 2025+. As an example, the MoD signed a £100m/year support contract for all its support ships when the last of the Tide-class tankers was delivered, which included all the odds and sods like HMS Protector :
    https://des.mod.uk/new-deal-support-navy-operations-will-support-over-700-british-job/

    Usual rule of thumb is that purchase cost is 35-50% of the total cost of ownership. Britannia lasted 43 years, but say 30 years is more typical. HMG can borrow 30-year gilts at 1.34%, so £200m becomes just under £300m including borrowing costs – £10m/year. As a ballpark you can add £10m/year direct costs and £10m/year maintenance/refits. So £30m/year for 30 years.

    At this stage, one wouldn’t expect them to have all the operational details nailed down. The civilian-manned Royal Fleet Auxiliary is the obvious home from a HR perspective, but may not be felt to be prestigious enough. But there’s all sorts of models that can be followed. If you look at the paramilitary wing of the London Tourist Board, you have everything from regulars doing dance routines at Buck House, pensioners in uniform at the Tower of London, and reservists providing saluting batteries.

    And there’s models that allow the MoD to charge other departments for the use of their assets – for instance, the aid budget gets charged when warships are used for disaster relief. So I don’t see the organisation side being insuperable, just so long as someone takes a top-level decision that there will be X budget attached to Y department. But of course that’s the kind of detail that this PM isn’t great on.

    I just hope that it gets done properly. If this is to work it has to make a statement, and modern technology allows the traditional look of yachts to be rethought. Either do something bonkers (search for the Unique Circle yachts by Zaha Hadid) or go for net-zero using wingmasts or DynaRig sails like Oceanco’s recent Black Pearl. Just don’t give us the yacht equivalent of a Premier Inn.

    1. it’s all tied up with the government’s plans for shipbuilding in general.

      Oh, the irony…

      The Tories (Thatcher, specifically) killed the industry – many in my own immediate family were directly and disastrously screwed over by how her policies destroyed shipbuilding in NE England – and now they have “great plans” for it…

      1. Back in the early 1980s (or so I was told):

        “Hello, Mr British Shipbuilder, we would like you to build us a supertanker.”

        “I’m, sorry, I don’t build supertankers, but I will build you two ships amounting together to the tonnage you are after.”

        “Hello, Mr South Korean Shipbuilder, we would like you to build us a supertanker.”

        “How big?”

        I am afraid it is too easy to blame the collapse of, for example, shipbuilding on Thatcher and/or the trades unions when they were bit players in comparison with the managers and owners of and investors in UK manufacturing.

        There is even some evidence that certain UK shipyards back then took a rather cavalier attitude towards Government contracts, because they were confident the Government had no choice, but to buy British.

        Back in 2013, Boris Johnson said that leaving the EU would not address “chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”

        We did not need to leave the EU to address those issues, but on leaving the EU, we are not yet addressing those issues and there is no definite evidence that the Government is planning to do so.

        But then, may be now Johnson is Prime Minister those issues are of little matter as is evidenced by the ability of the PM to focus on trivia like a national flagship?

        If not, then the national flagship would be promoting an economy mired in “chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”

        No, that cannot be right, not with Captain Boris Johnson at the helm of the HBS Free(loading) Enterprise.

        1. I am afraid it is too easy to blame the collapse of, for example, shipbuilding on Thatcher

          John, my family and I saw- and suffered first-hand from – the direct impact on ship-building of Thatcher’s policies.

          She doesn’t get a pass because other factors were also involved – she intentionally, and with great zeal, acted against the ongoing viability of UK (certainly NE England) shipbuilding, and there’s simply no denying her responsibility for its demise.

          Theorising is all well and good, but if you’d been there…

    2. Thank you – highly informative and amusing!
      But your borrowing costs are, I fear, highly suspect… See
      https://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2021/06/02/uk-government-borrowing-in-2020-21-was-19-billion-at-most-so-where-was-the-economic-crisis-that-prevented-lockdown-and-caused-so-many-deaths-nowhere-to-be-seen-of-course-it-was-all-just-dogma/

      And in fact we never tax and spend but only spend and then tax
      http://www.progressivepulse.org/economics/seven-reasons-why-we-never-tax-and-spend
      So if it’s available, we can have it.
      Whether we want it is a different question…

    3. To bring together a couple of things mentioned in your fascinating post – I have just returned home from a 7 day cruise round the English coast on a brand new cruise ship and when we were in Falmouth on 2nd June, we were docked next to the RFA Argus, which appeared to be having a massive marquee removed from its main deck area.

      1. Argus has been undergoing maintenance at A&P Falmouth, it’s common to erect a marquee for the duration of the maintenance to provide more space under cover.

    1. I think the £200m figure sounded about right to whoever wrote the press release this time.

      £100m soundings a bit cheap skate whereas £300m might suggest the Government was going overboard on the project.

  22. A £200 million yacht will come to symbolise that we are broke and desperate compared to the super rich’s toys. Ironically Johnson views his boat to promote trade and ‘Britishness’ but surely the Government’s preparedness to break International Law and it’s dealings with the EU will act as a deterrent and be associated with a Rogue Government not to be trusted.

    Maybe if the Johnsonian Government didn’t lie so much and practised Integrity and Responsibility we wouldn’t need a boat to convince other nations that we are a good catch to do business with.

    A fun but serious blog, thankyou.

  23. Sensible of the House of Windsor to distance themselves from this. You have blogged before about how conscious the royals must be of the fragility of monarchy, the sheer uncertainty of its future. Maybe they are looking at the current bout of illiberal authoritarian populism and thinking of what happened to the House of Savoy.

  24. If this is meant to be a strategic investment to promote international business I couldn’t imagine a more stupid idea. A floating hotel and exhibition centre is hardly what is required even if outfitted with a tame Royal and the band of the Grenadier Guards. I am sure the British export community was never asked its opinion or recommendations. It is so stupid and so obviously unfit for stated purpose that I don’t believe the rationale is the showcasing of British engineering in shipbuilding, a field where Britain is not internationally competitive, is the real justification for a moment. I see it as a Johnsonian vanity project conceived by an idiot but accepted by the Cabinet because it would fit well with their cynical political strategy of using every opportunity to appeal to the inherent patriotism of the average voter. It’s “Great to be British”, unless of course one is Scottish, Irish (Northern of course), or Welsh, or simply passingly intelligent.

  25. A few observations about this:

    1) This is called a “national flagship”. As far as I know we have never had such a thing, and no other country has such a thing, and it is not clear what such a thing actually is. This is I suppose acknowledged by saying that it would be the first of its kind anywhere.

    2) In spite of the above, we are also told that HMY Britannia was a “national flagship” in the government’s press release. Britannia was as far as I know never actually called this. Britannia was a Royal Yacht that was designed to be able to double as a hospital ship, though the one time when its use for this purpose was considered (the Falklands in 1982) it turned out that Britannia’s requirement for a special kind of fuel oil made its deployment more trouble than it was worth.

    3) The £200m cost is almost enough to buy another Type 26 Frigate, which would achieve most of the other stated goals of this “national flagship” (e.g., helping the shipping industry and so-forth).

    4) The only way in which the cost and crewing of this ship by the Royal Navy (which is the middle of a manpower crisis) can be at all justifiable is if, similar to Britannia, it has some use as an auxiliary of some kind. However, it would have to be designed so as to be convertible for this purpose, and there is no mention of this.

    5) The idea that such a ship was a good idea is not a mainstream one even within the conservative party. The “national flagship” framing apparently comes from a blog-post on the “A Force For Good” blog. This shows the extent to which the government is listening to, and influenced by, some very whacky sources.

    1. PS – here’s the blogpost I mentioned which as far as I can work out may be the origin, or at least close to the origin, of this “National Flagship” idea:
      https://www.aforceforgood.uk/single-post/2020/02/29/its-time-for-a-british-national-flagship
      The language of the post and of the press release is curiously similar and it is hard not to think that the author of the press release has read the blog post.

      But it’s also bonkers. One of the “advantages” it ascribes to the “flagship” is that it will require a Royal Navy escort. Another is that this ship costing hundreds of millions might be a training ship for cadets.

      In contrast the term “National Flagship” is not mentioned anywhere in this 2016 Telegraph article about a call from Royal Commonwealth Society director to build a replacement for HMY Britannia…
      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/25/royal-commonwealth-society-director-backs-calls-new-hmy-britannia/
      … probably for the good reason that (in spite of what it says in the PM’s press release) no-one had ever called it any such thing.

    2. Britannia used the same fuel as several of the commercial ships that went to the Falklands, so that wasn’t the reason.

      It was mostly a factor of commercial passenger liners being pretty much ready to go and more suited to the long trip South, whereas Britannia only had 2000-miles range and being *much* smaller was far less comfortable for casualties in the heavy seas of the Southern Ocean in autumn.

      And the conversion to hospital ship relied on bunks that allegedly were no longer in the warehouse they were meant to be in….

      I think the whole “national flagship” framing is just a hasty adjustment to the fact that the Palace wants nothing to do with it. The working assumption was always that it would be a direct replacement for HMY Britannia, until someone actually asked HMQ and an alternative narrative was needed.

      1. Anyone interested in the intended wartime role of Britannia could do worse than read this technical paper from 1954, which explains the genesis of the dual royal yacht/hospital ship role in 1938, the revival of the plan in 1951, and the design features included to allow it to undertake both tasks. https://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk/media/1806/technical-paper.pdf

        The 1986 incident, evacuating around 1000 people under fire as civil war was breaking out in Yemen, is depicted here. https://www.maritimeprints.com/portfolio/view/the-royal-yacht-britannia-evacuating-personnel-off-little-aden-january-1986/

  26. “Come and sign a trade deal with Brexit Britain (name your own terms…) and win a free cruise on our Flagship, state of the art, super-duper, Britain is best at everything, boat, “The Brain of Boris” – what do you mean ‘it’s a little bit small’?”

    You can tell Frosty that one benefit of Brexit is that it provides limitless chances for satire, apart from that, he’d bewise not to hold his breath.

  27. One aspect of the flagship announcement which seems to have been overlooked is the risk management around the howls of derision that will accompany the inevitable occasions when it runs out of fuel; the turbines overheat; it runs aground / collides with a harbour wall or sinks in utter ignominy. I suppose in mitigation they could name it HMS Troutbridge…

  28. The Metro ran a story on 21st February 2021, entitled, “Boris ‘wants to build giant roundabout under the Isle of Man’ “.

    What particularly stood out were these three paragraphs:

    “A source told The Times: ‘Everyone knows Boris wants to do this so people were asked to look at how.’

    However, another source said while some senior aides describe the plan as ‘bats**t’, they acknowledge it as a ‘Fuhrer bunker project’.

    One told the paper: ‘Just as Hitler moved around imaginary armies in the dying days of the Third Reich, so the No 10 policy unit is condemned to keep looking at this idea, which exists primarily in the mind of the PM.’ ”

    A lot of Nazi Government money was wasted on a civil and military procurement system partly based on folk getting Hitler’s attention at the right moment to pitch an idea to him:

    “My generals, I met a chap at a party last night. He’s got a plan for a tank weighing 188 metric tons. It will be the biggest, mostly heavily armoured tank in the world. I’ve given him the go ahead to develop it.”

    “Why the silence?”

    Or …

    “I was really impressed with what Dyson had to say about ventilators. I mean it can’t be difficult to switch one of his devices from sucking to blowing, can it?”

    “Yes, ok, you wouldn’t want the blow to be as powerful as the suck of one of his cleaners and, yes, the sucking and blowing need to regularly alternate without pausing irregularly, but, he was exciting, he sounded like he knew what he was talking about and he sold me on his ideas much better than those boring blokes with a track record in making ventilators. I like the cut of his jib.”

    “Give him a contract and make sure that I and not Hancock get to pose for a photo opp with the first Dyson Ventilator off the production line. Oh, and check with Dyson about the colour. I fancy London Transport red.”

    Incidentally, Adolf Hitler used to berate his generals and officials for talking Germany down as it all fell apart …

    “If you only believe in me, it will all work out ok.”

    And then there were Hitler’s Wunderwaffen.

    The word Wunderwaffe now generally refers to a universal solution which solves all problems related to a particular issue, mostly used ironically for its illusionary nature.

    The national flagship would seem by the outrageous claims made for its utility in the Number Ten press release to very much fall into the category of a Wunderwaffe.

  29. Anybody who has worked in regeneration probably comes out in a rash when they hear the word ‘flagship’. Applied to projects generally – but most often to buildings – flagship generally meant a vanity project unrelated to what you want to achieve. Why spend a few hundred thousand renovating a building that needs some TLC when you can spend millions on a new-build.

    Not untypical was the community building that was forced to have a large car park even though its target market was within walking distance. Rumour has it that the only time that the car park was anywhere near full was for the official opening.

    The point about flagships is that they are the ‘legacy’ (yes, they use that word) that will be left when the funding dries up. Flagships are important as symbols, not for what they actually do – if anything at all. With £200 million (plus running costs) you could easily make a dent in some significant challenges – house and support a fair few people who are homeless, for example – but that’s not the sort of legacy they want. They want a plaque on the wall, and it’s not the same when it’s on a small semi in the unfashionable part of town.

    Let’s just be honest: this is vanity pure and simple, and designed to make politicians feel important. Amazingly, we’ll let them get away with it.

    1. I will see you a flagship and raise you an iconic.

      I was reminded earlier today of some frustrating conversations in socio-economic regeneration with community organisations seemingly more interested in getting a building with their name over the door than in delivering services to their community through a leased building or on another organisation’s premises.

  30. My goodness you have attracted a great deal of comment with this one David. I will stay out of the debate as to whether this is a good idea or not. However, my question is, that if it ever did get built, why would it need a funnel? A vessel powered by wind or solar energy would be its green credentials surely!

    1. I will stay out of the debate as to whether this is a good idea or not.

      There’s nodebate about that, David…

      1. Sadly there is – otherwise David wouldn’t have written the blog. Someone, somewhere thinks this is a good idea

  31. I really enjoyed today’s blog post and I also very much enjoyed the BTL comments. Mind you, by now I would have expected someone to have claimed ‘house’ for their buzzword-bingo card, surely the original announcement has got them all?

    As regards the actual boat, I think the sooner that idea is sunk, the better …..

    1. The words that are echoing around my head ever since this ridiculous project was announced are “Garden Bridge”.

      £50 million spent and not one brick laid down.

      Johnson then refused to participate in the follow up investigation.

      My cynical side is suggesting this could be similar. Lots of people will make some money out of the design & consulting fees, but I doubt a ship will be built at the end of it.

  32. The Newhaven to Dieppe ferry will be more impressive, both in size and value for money.

  33. I think it is not unfair to say that trade and industry is to Team Johnson akin to a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom they know next to nothing and about whom they care even less.

    It struck me this morning that there is another way to look at this project and it is not in pounds, shillings and pence or pieces of eight, me hearties, but in terms of seeing and being seen. What used to be known as the fleet in being.

    I twice had in the 1990s the misfortune to be involved in a two day employment and training event called Jobscene, held at the National Indoor Arena here in Birmingham.

    The Employment Service, my employer had been roped in by the organisers, because without us, the employment would have been silent. Most of the event space being taken up by colleges, universities, training providers and the odd employer. The latter not necessarily actively looking for staff over the two days.

    The Jobcentre network meant, well, jobs and we had the kudos of being one of the four sponsors (and paying for that dubious privilege).

    I had clearly impressed someone or other so I got to be the stand manager, dealing with all the mundanities whilst the Regional Marketing Manager got to swan around for a few hours before clearing off.

    My superiors felt that, if we were referring people to jobs then we might expect job starts. The event was mostly attended by school children and the adults were from all across the West Midlands and some from even further afield. We could not submit the former to jobs and, in those days before we went online we were only carrying local jobs for local people, but notwithstanding some unusual vacancies to pep things up a bit.

    There was no narrow business case for attending the event. The temporary team I had assembled and the staff back in one or more of the local offices dedicated to supporting us over the two days would have been better occupied in working with jobseekers in the usual way.

    I apologise for labouring the point. However, I had, by and large, got a good team of staff who were not just a credit to their organisation, but good ambassadors for it.

    The company behind the event and they held them across the country had learnt by experience how the attendees, the rank and file, saw the event. Yes, probably a few welcome days away from normal duties, if they had never been on an exhibition stand, but the battle hardened knew them as great opportunities to network, to see and be seen.

    Each organisation had to sign an agreement covering how their staff would disport themselves at the event. On one of the two events I attended, they specifically cited no fraternisation with fellow attendees. Like that was going to be honoured.

    And, in a post event report, I said expecting significant numbers of placings was incredible and the follow up involved in monitoring job referrals from the event seemed disproportionate, given the likely numbers.

    I did emphasise, if memory serves me correctly, the value of networking, catching up even, with friends and colleagues as well as making useful new contacts. Hard to quantify, but very useful none the less.

    A lot more business may be done at these events at the margins than at a more formal engagement where folk are expected to be on their best behaviour and express the party line.

    And at the second of the two events, folk had the chance, twice, to see me deliver a master class in job interview technique. Had one or other or both gone awry then that would have been memorable and spark many an anecdote (despite me not wearing a bowler). Dropping a clanger, but not repeatedly, Mr Johnson, if people remember you in a good way, has its upsides.

    In the context of this blog, I needs must relate one anecdote. The parties of school children trolling around Jobscene had, we assumed, been encouraged to collect leaflets off the various stands. I and my colleagues did our best to stop them stripping our stand of literature for adults only.

    However, a neighbouring stand, occupied by a law firm was ransacked whilst all of the staff were at lunch, but the event still open to the public. The first we knew of it was when we saw parties of schoolchildren passing by, laden down with what looked to us to be very weighty and expensive legal tomes with which the company had decorated their stand to give it a certain legal air.

    The school kids had taken some very impressive scalps. I think some of the law books were returned later in the day, but not all of them, by any means.

    I really do not see the opportunity for any such diverting activity on the national flagship. The security requirements alone would seem to mitigate against it.

    Good temporary facilities ‘ashore’ with access to watering holes, cafés and the like in the immediate vicinity make good rendezvous for informal contacts and places for informal after event debriefings.

    One might well imagine the national flagship even having a curfew. Be home by ten and no wandering the decks after eleven.

    Given Johnson is a lazy sod, known, say, for partying ’til dawn on the yachts of other folks and bumming drinks off people, you would think he would see the value of not running a particularly tight ship to promote UK business.

    But then Team Johnson are ignorant of doing business and probably cannot imagine that one might take a hard nosed approach to an event whilst not expecting to get a signed and sealed agreement at the end of it, suitable for a photo opportunity.

    That building good relationships, even to no immediate benefit; identifying areas of mutual interest; spotting useful leads … all have real value in business (and in diplomacy).

    1. This comment highlights something which is that deals are very unlikely to actually be negotiated aboard this ship for the simple reason that prestige would demand the risk of there being no deal signed be avoided. Instead, it would be for the photo-op signature after the negotiations are concluded.

      1. That is a very good point.

        By extension, would there be much appetite for business folk formally signing off contracts to fly off to wherever the boat is moored just for a photo opportunity?

      2. Not just unlikely, but impossible. Trade Deals are fiendishly complex and can take years to successfully complete depending on what is included. This proposed yacht would at most be the ceremonial sign off location between trade ministers. The actual work having been done already. The idea that it could support making such deals is pure fantasy.

  34. Like many other Johnson unicorns, the flagship is reminiscent of the ‘Cloudbuster’ story of great promise but ultimate disappointment that inspired ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush:

    ” I don’t know when…
    But just saying it could even make it happen”

  35. A few brief thoughts arise from these excellent comments.

    1. A major technology – and by definition high tech for security reasons – project in an area in which the U.K. no longer excels. What could possibly go wrong?

    2. What bad timing as Johnson fluffs his exam in understanding what our schoolchildren need by way of catch-up investment.

    3. Those of us who live in SW London are particularly offended by this vanity project when we vainly await any coherent plan to fix Hammersmith Bridge. It rubs salt into the Garden Bridge wound.

    4. And more philosophically: I detect Johnson’s longing for what he thought the job of PM would be oust-Brexit. A permanent sinecure holiday voyage, funded by someone (anyone) else, sailing serenely under blue skies. I do not wish him bon voyage.

  36. It does sound as if the cabinet wants a yacht like all the billionaires. I doubt they would be that self serving or stupid. Who’s going to Captain? Andrew? He is ex Navy and at a loose end….

  37. Thank you, David, for what you wrote, and for drawing attention to others’ excellent additions. It’s another chapter of ‘The Blunders of our Governments’, and, like many of those, written with foresight not mere hindsight.

    May I add one more? One of Johnson’s overused tactics has been Lynton Crosby’s instruction that, when you want to distract attention from something worse, put a dead cat on the table.

    May I suggest that the £200m (and the rest) dead cat flagship is a jolly useful diversion from the equally business case-free, but £100b and more of cost, HS2 railway line?

    Sunk cost (note that one) means that even though the construction industry has been spending as much as it can as fast as possible since Johnson, against lots of advice, said, ‘build me a really, big expensive monument’, it would still be better to stop now and cut our losses.

    1. Indeed: it is never too late to turn around once you have realised you are going the wrong way.

    2. I do not propose to argue for or against HS2.

      However, Birmingham New Street is handling more traffic than that for which it was originally designed in the early 1960s when two parallel stations were combined into one, but not wholly into one.

      By the early 1990s, it was clear that New Street, the hub of Britain’s inter-city network was becoming ever more of a bottleneck. British Rail considered something needed to be done to create additional capacity at track level at New Street.

      As part of a rational exercise as to how to proceed ie not coming up with a solution and then casting around for grounds to justify it, Your Majesty, BR undertook a traffic survey of passengers using the station. They discovered that most inter-city passengers did not start or end their journeys at New Street. When not passing through by train, they were changing trains. For them, an inter-change station outside of Birmingham city centre would be perfectly acceptable and might even prove more passenger friendly than the existing station.

      Passengers travelling between London and Birmingham by inter-city were the exceptional group, but even they might not be inconvenienced by a service that whilst still stopping at New Street would also stop at a new station (in the Heartlands of East Birmingham).

      Obviously, moving the bulk of the inter-city services out of New Street would create the opportunity to increase the number of regional and local services using the station.

      The Birmingham Post and Mail took the view that the main station for Birmingham should be in the city centre. That view, shared more widely, and privatisation put the kibosh on the project.

      A decade or so later, when the Birmingham terminus for HS2 was under discussion, the BPM argued for a new central station for Birmingham, but not at the heart of the city!

      We now have the bright and shiny, much more passenger friendly Grand Central at surface level; an essentially unchanged Birmingham New Street at track level and the HS2 terminus being built on the site of the original terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway (outside of the core of the city centre).

      The HS2 terminus is not integrated into Birmingham New Street (and Birmingham Moor Street), but you will, if changing stations in Birmingham be presented with the chance to really stretch your legs.

      When folk consider the value of HS2 or alternative uses for the money committed to it, rarely does seeking an answer to the New Street Question come up. But then when you consider that many do not see Birmingham, the city furthest from the sea in any direction I gather, as a major destination in itself then may be that is not so surprising.

      As with assessing the value of a national flagship, stakeholder analysis, despite what Dominic Cummings thinks, is a very important part of any appraisal process.

      By the foregoing, you will see that there is a credible case for arguing that the iconic HS2 Birmingham terminus has not just been located in the wrong place, but has definitely not been integrated effectively into the inter-city, regional and local rail networks at the heart of which Birmingham sits.

      “In 1976, BR commissioned a study which concluded that rail closures had a significant adverse effect on the quality of life of many former passengers. Only a third of people who had travelled beyond their line’s junction with the main line on a reasonably regular basis continued to do so and those without cars tended to abandon non-essential travel altogether.”

      Last Trains: Dr Beeching and the death of rural England, Charles Loft.

      There had prior to 1976, it seems, been an assumption that folk who travelled by a branch line to a junction and then took a train from there would continue to do so, if the branch line closed. They would travel to the junction by another form of transport and then catch a train from there. In reality, in such a scenario, most once they had got into their cars drove to their ultimate destination.

      When the location of stations for HS2 was under consideration, did the planners take into account the reasonable assumption that maximising integration into the existing rail network would increase the return on the proposed investment by encouraging greater passenger travel across that existing network?

      To put it in the language a Boris Johnson might understand, were they looking to get the biggest bang for our pound?

  38. The value of Britannia was it was the Queen’s home afloat. As such it carried a lot of prestige. The new yacht is clearly intended to be the PMs floating residence, the press release links it with Prime Ministerial visits. As a politician’s gin palace it has no prestige at all, but that isn’t the point. The US president turns up to summits in Air Force One. Bozo intends to go one better by arriving in his “flagship”.

    It’s yet another in the long line of Boris Johnson’s wasteful vanity projects. A £200m empty vessel. As one wag wrote in the Guardian BTL comments, it should be named the Carrie Celeste.

  39. First thanks to David gor prompt to read through these comments – amply rewarded for doing so. Thank you all for a real range of excellent of comments from those who are clearly familiar with history and state of Royal Navy through those with deep knowledge of civil service ways laced with anecdotes and stories to clear summaries of how wasteful, silly and downright expensively self indulging and irrelevant all this is.

    In the end I have to side with the last comment – seems a big, fat dead cat bouncing while Delta variant infection grows exponentially, border policy remains shambles as another ‘success’ of our Home Secretary (she who will not be named) and Door Matt is busy negotiating transfer and sale of all our GP records with carefully hidden notice to patients and surgeries!

    Do not even start me on Brexit – only today I was told that my order for small selection of good coming from Germany made two and a half months ago faces difficulties in delivery and J will be fully reimbursed! I am surely not the only one.

  40. A litany for vainglorious projects:

    * The great Green Bridge

    * The wet runway in the Thames estuary

    * The tunnel under the bomb bank in the Irish Sea

    * The bridge over the stormy Irish Sea

    Is there pattern in this vainglorious litany?

    The Sovereign has seen many holders of the Office of Prime Minister come and go. She is politically astute and knows how to keep her mouth shut. She is also (unlike the current squatter in No 10) a master of the ancient craft of public speaking.

    She has not forgotten his perogation lies. Nor will she forgive him.

    We would fund much worthwhile charitable endeavour by selling tickets for the stalls at the meeting when the Sovereign questions Mr Johnson about his new National Flagship.

  41. One final thought, I think, from me on this fascinating discussion.

    If the national flagship is to “showcase cutting-edge British design, engineering and green technology while boosting trade and driving investment” then it must perforce be British, through and through.

    However, the ship “will be the first of its kind constructed in the UK”. Ergo, at least some of the capacity and competence to build the ship in the UK must be created here before it may be commissioned.

    If, though, the ship’s primary function is to provide British business with “a new global platform to promote their products” then it need not been built wholly in the United Kingdom. In fact, as we have considered at some length, a new build might not even be the best option for a floating conference and exhibition centre.

    This is a not a new argument as we have discussed. Does the Royal Navy, for example, exist primarily to support the delivery of the UK Government’s defence and foreign policy or provide jobs and a spur for investment and innovation in the UK shipbuilding industry?

    If the former, then buying proven, sea-tested products out of a shipyard makes the most sense. Arguably, the contractors to the US Navy would seem to fit the bill.

    Strategic did I hear you say?

    The following are extracts from a BBC report about the Integrated Review, dated 21st March 2021:

    “A new Royal Navy surveillance ship is to be built to protect “critical” undersea cables.”

    “Hundreds of thousands of miles of undersea cables circle the globe, providing internet and communications links between nations and continents.

    The Ministry of Defence said they are “vital to the global economy and communications between governments” and are at “risk of sabotage” due to “submarine warfare”.

    The new Multi Role Ocean Surveillance ship will be fitted “with advanced sensors and will carry a number of remotely operated and autonomous undersea drones which will collect data”.

    The vessel, staffed by 15 people and due to come into service in 2024, will carry out operations in both UK and international waters.

    The MoD added it will also “be able to support with other defence tasks, including exercises and operations in the Arctic which will become an increasingly contested area”.”

    The vessel is clearly designed to undertake an important role, but not one sufficiently important that it will be solely dedicated to it. Or may be the spooks have determined there is no imminent threat so a commissioning date of at least 2024 is acceptable and, thereafter, any credible threats to undersea cables will conveniently be detected when the vessel is available to handle them?

    There does seem some confusion at the heart of Government. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace from the same BBC report:

    “[The vessel’s] job is going to be to protect not only critical national infrastructure, but other things. It will be able to do other surveillance functions around the sea and everything else and I think it is really important that we invest in that because otherwise we are deeply exposed.”

    Although not specified in the report, one imagines the howls of protest were the ship not to be at least partly built in the UK.

    The MOD is, however, very much in synch with telling the world we are back on the high seas. So much so that when announcing the first tour of duty of the UK Carrier Strike Group, the press office listed a hunter killer submarine amongst the vessels making up the group. Not the done thing as the Commander of UKCSG proves by not making any reference to the submarine on Twitter and elsewhere.

    It helps to keep a potential enemy guessing about the potency of your group (and it is a good idea not to let Vlad the Impaler know that you have one less naval asset for deployment in the North Atlantic to protect your vital undersea cables).

    Style over substance is very much the hallmark of Boris Johnson’s Government.

    We are hearing a lot at the moment about strategic industries from the Opposition, particularly a rehabilitated Ed Miliband, as well as from the Government.

    Steel is a strategic industry. We must secure our steel industry, because we may not trust the Johnny Foreigners of the developed world to supply us with steel to order for, say, building ships.

    However, we had to trust the French to provide us with the steel for the hulls of the new Dreadnought submarines, because no British company makes the steel required to resist the pressures to be experienced at the depths in which the submarines are to operate.

    Hulls that might be crushed like tin cans at such depths are understandably not what the Royal Navy wants in a submarine.

    There are, it seems, good commercial grounds, probably limited demand, for British business to not seek to compete with the French supplier of such specialist steel.

    The Times and The Telegraph are the playthings of rich men. They do not have to turn a profit. Does Boris Johnson understand that other people not only have to work for a living, but without a generous subsidy or bung to keep them afloat?

    We do trust other Johnny Foreigners (mostly of the developing world?) to supply us with the raw materials with which to make steel. We might, I gather, secure at least some of them by strip mining the Cotswolds and the Chilterns.

    Steady on, old chap, I hear you cry. Green and pleasant land and all that.

    Clearly there will be a limit to how far we are willing to go down the road towards full blown autarky.

    The Prime Minister has said:

    “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.”

    We are still a great trading nation, set in a silver sea, but to trade in the 21st Century requires an acceptance that one cannot also be independent and aloof. One also has to buy as well as sell and sell what the world wants to buy.

    As Mrs Thatcher once observed, although I suspect in another context, the world does not owe us a living. There is no point in conjuring up shipbuilding capacity in the UK to build a national flagship only to discover that there will be no overseas customers for such vessels. That the new industry will not be viable once the Government commission is completed.

    We tried being above the fray twice in the last century and, on each occasion, we made significant contributions to the outbreak of a world war that weakened our economy, our power and our prestige.

    How one may write a biography of Winston Churchill and not appreciate that beggars belief.

    1. Of course it’s a “one-off” – which means by the same token no other country has experience of building them either. And actually I wouldn’t have such cultural cringe of US shipbuilding – the economies of scale and experience that come from building 1-2 destroyers and submarines a year for 20+ years mean that they do a great job with those, but most of their other shipbuilding programmes have been a mess and their ship design skills are atrophying – many of their small ships are based on Australian ferries and the only ships they sell on the world market are to client states.

      The RN can rightly be criticised for taking an age to make its mind up, but the “measure 10 times, cut once” approach does mean that they’ve avoided the outright disasters of the RAF’s Nimrods (twice), Chinook HC3 or the ongoing saga of Army medium armour. That’s not to say they’re perfect -far from it – but operating at the bleeding edge is never going to be easy. Just looking around at other aircraft carriers – the French built theirs too short for their planes, the Americans had cats, traps and elevators that don’t work, the Indians had to treble their budget for reviving a clapped-out Soviet carrier.

      I know what you mean about the PR thing – but the reality is that everybody from Beijing to the Kremlin knows that there’s going to be a sub accompanying QNLZ, because that’s what all Western carrier groups do. So it’s not exactly a big secret.

      I’m not sure what your point about MROSS is – the nature of hacking ocean cables is that it’s a difficult, specialist job that needs specialist vessels – but it tends to be one-off trips to install/remove equipment, you don’t need to stay on station the whole time. There’s plenty of other examples of RN specialist ships that get roped in to other roles from time to time. And a crew of 15 means it’s not going to be big.

      Part of the timing is a response to Russia’s recently-introduced capabilities in this area, part of it is that previously we just relied on the cousins but they are more concerned with the Pacific these days.

  42. One Boris Vanity Project that actually exists is the Docklands Dangleway. When the project was announced, the initially budget was £25 million entirely funded by private finance. This figure was revised to £45 million, and by September 2011 the budget had more than doubled to £60 million. TfL planned to make up the shortfall by paying for the project out of the London Rail budget, applying for funding from the European Regional Development Fund and seeking commercial sponsorship. In October 2011, the Dubai-based airline Emirates agreed to provide £36 million in a 10-year sponsorship deal which included branding with the airline’s name.
    Mace built the cable car for £45 million and operated it for the first three years for a further £5.5 million at that time the most expensive cable system ever built. The total cost of the project was about £60 million of which £45 million went towards construction, the taxpayer picking up a bill of £24 million. For the year to 8 February 2020 the number of journeys per week averaged 23,961.

    1. As someone who took part in the decision making around the allocation of European Regional Development Funds in Birmingham and Solhull, did they secure any money from that source, in the end?

      A project that had commenced, including just securing planning permission, usually ruled itself ineligible for grant funding from any public body and most other bodies, too.

      And the substitution of grant funding for mainstream (statutory) Government spending, whether local, regional, national or trans-national, is, in normal circumstances unacceptable.

  43. One thing omitted in the cost comparison with Mr. Bezos’s $500m super-yacht; Mr. Bezos has had to commission a second yacht, at extra cost, in order to land his helicopter. There is no landing pad on the first one.

    Thus, if we, as a proud, sovereign, seafaring nation, wish to gain the upper hand on mere arrivistes such as Mr. Bezos, we are, indeed, going to need a bigger boat.

    Unless, of course, we have a frigate or two accompanying our flagship vessel everywhere it goes, which will push up the operational costs still further, whilst detrimentally affecting the Royal Navy’s frontline strength.

    I’m also amused at the notion of Johnson disembarking from a helicopter onto a frigate and attempting to board his supervessel by zip wire… But that would be too cheap a joke to make :-)

    1. The blogger who (as far as I can determine) may have been the first to suggest that this ship be called a “national flagship” (a meaningless term) stated that the need for an escort was an AVANTAGE of the plan! They believe it would lead to the building of more warships.

  44. Unfortunately I keep thinking of the Titanic, the Flying Dutchman, the Marie Celeste, John Franklin and the Ancient Mariner. Much better to sail “In a beautiful pea-green boat” with “some honey, and plenty of money”.

  45. For those interested, Navy Lookout have some more details, looks like they’re trying to keep it within the MoD which helps the GPA issues :

    https://www.navylookout.com/in-focus-the-new-national-flagship-for-britain-a-royal-navy-vessel/

    In particular note the BTL comments from N-a-B who is well-informed on the detail of shipbuilding capability and suggests that from a pure shipbuilding POV then Belfast is probably the obvious place to build this. And of course Johnson is not flavour of the month in NI at the moment. I’d been thinking that they wanted to start building ships on the Tyne again, but is this a £200m bung to buy off opposition to the NI Protocol?

    However the track record of giving shipbuilding contracts to inexperienced yards recalls Blair’s efforts to revive Tyneside by giving Swan Hunter contracts for 2 of the 4 Bay class. They couldn’t do it even with an extra £84m handout, and one of them had to be towed to the Clyde for completion by people who knew what they were doing. See the NAO report for the grisly details :

    https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2007/11/070898iii.pdf

  46. I know this is a bit late, but as a counterpoint to all
    the comments around a bigger boat to take on the Great
    White sharks of the international business community

    > It may well be that to really impress the international
    > business community, we are going to need a bigger boat.

    it may be interesting to note that great white sharks
    are not quite the top predator you may have thought
    they were from watching Jaws. It turns out that great
    white sharks are terrified of Orca (killer whales).

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/great-white-sharks-are-completely-terrified-orcas-180972009/

    found via
    https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/06/the-world-saw-a-shark-pocalypse-19-million-years-ago-and-we-dont-know-why/?comments=1&post=39959827

    to the point that if an orca pod turns up, great white
    sharks will desert their feeding grounds for months.
    Orca can and do kill great white sharks.

    If only there were an organisation which, like an orca
    pod, consisted of powerful individual entities,
    voluntarily working together to achieve more in concert
    than they could individually; if only …

    I think it goes badly for an individual orca if it’s
    separated from its pod. Some such are kept in
    captivity and required to make entertainment for
    the whim of the gawping crowd.

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