23rd June 2021
When the proposed new national flagship was announced, there were a number of odd things about the announcement.
(Please see this earlier post on this blog, especially the many highly informed and insightful comments beneath.)
One thing which seemed especially odd was that it was announced by the prime minister’s office – and the only mention of the royal navy or of the ministry of defence was that navy would crew the boat.
There was no mention – explicitly – of which government department would pay the procurement/commissioning of the ship – nor of which government department would be responsible for its envisaged thirty years of maintenance and repair.
As a former central government public procurement lawyer, this seemed strange.
The announcement seemed, well, just flimsy – the shallowest of press releases.
Since then it has become obvious why the announcement was so flimsy.
The reason is that the thinking behind the announcement also has been flimsy – if it can be characterised as thinking at all.
‘The Cabinet Office, which was originally asked to devise the plans, the Department for International Trade, which was originally expected to benefit from them, and the Ministry of Defence, which has now been saddled with the project, are all in the dark about where the money is coming from, not least because the MoD is fighting to plug a £16 billion black hole in its annual budget.
“‘Another official confirmed: “The royal yacht is a complete and utter shitshow. When it was first floated, the PM wanted it to be built in Britain. It was given to [Cabinet Office minister Michael] Gove to sort out, but it became clear that under procurement rules it could only be built here if it was a navy thing with a bunch of fake weapons on board. So Gove passed it on to the MoD. The Treasury stayed out of it.’
None of this is a surprise; indeed, all of this can be inferred just from a close critical reading of the original announcement.
Anybody with even the most basic awareness of public procurement would realise that if this was a civil (non-military) project, there could be no legal restrictions as to which tenderers would be considered.
‘Downing Street has backed down from insisting that the Ministry of Defence should foot the whole bill for new royal yacht Britannia in a Whitehall row about the funding of the £200m vessel.
‘The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is resisting being lumbered with the cost of the project at a time when it is trying to fill a £16bn backlog in its equipment budget.
‘On Monday, Downing Street indicated that the yacht would be paid for out of the defence budget, with a spokesperson saying: “The procurement process, which is being done through the MoD, will reflect its wide-ranging use and so it will be funded through the MoD.”
‘No 10 then clarified on Tuesday that the MoD would initially only pay for the procurement process, and that the rest of the costs has not been allocated.
‘A Downing Street spokesperson said: “This is a ship that will promote UK trade and drive investment back into our country. So we expect any costs of building and operating the ship will be outweighed by the economic benefits that it brings over its 30-year lifespan.”’
This is what public policy-making and decision-making looks like when it is made up as it goes along.
The most plausible explanation is that nobody in government has a clue about how to go about the procurement exercise for this boat.
I am not a lobby journalist – and so I can add not other telling quotes from insiders, but I can add something.
Prompted by the announcement, I thought I would make a freedom of information request.
I made the request to the cabinet office, on the understanding that the cabinet office was the department responsible for that announcement of national flagship – and that was also the department that would deal with freedom of information requests for the prime minister’s office.
And today came the response to the request.
The cabinet office does not possess a business case for the national flagship – even though it was the department that announced it.
This odd situation can perhaps be explained as follows, either:
– there is a business case held in Downing Street, but my request clumsily missed it;
– there is a business case held in Downing Street, but the cabinet office has given me false information;
– there is a business case for this announced procurement, but it is held in another government department and has not been shared with the prime minister’s office or the cabinet office; or
– there is no business case, despite the public announcement.
What we do know is that a business case should always precede a procurement exercise – and so the fact that a government department may then handle the procurement exercise does not mean that the business case is then created.
That would be to put the dinghy before the boat.
Business cases precede procurement exercises – and should determine whether there is a procurement exercise or not.
The reasonable suspicion of anyone following this daft exercise is that there is no business case – and that this prestige procurement was announced without any preliminary thought whatsoever.
And now the government cannot back down.
And this is how £200 million (at least) is to be spent by the government.
I have now found this fascinating parliamentary answer – there appears to be no ‘assessment’, only ‘discussions’.
I have set out further information from answers to parliamentary questions in this thread:
The utter state of the National Flagship procurement
– what we know from answers to parliamentary questions
— davidallengreen (@davidallengreen) June 23, 2021
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