16 Jan 2012

New royal yacht ‘not appropriate’, says Cameron

As David Cameron rules out Michael Gove’s proposal for a new royal yacht to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee, one former Tory foreign secretary tells Channel 4 News he supports Mr Gove’s idea.

The Royal yacht Britannia docks in Simonstown naval harbour in 1995 (Reuters.)

David Cameron has ruled out using public money to fund a new royal yacht to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee. It follows the appearance of a leaked letter from Education Secretary Michael Gove to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, raising the idea of building a new version of the Britannia.

It is thought a new royal yacht would cost in the region of £60m. However, despite the cost, Mr Gove wrote: “In spite, and perhaps because of the austere times, the celebration should go beyond those of previous jubilees and mark the greater achievement that the diamond anniversary represents.”

He added that the Queen’s “highly significant contribution” to Britain and the Commonwealth should be recognised with a “lasting legacy”.

“Events such as proms and the party at the palace organised for the Diamond Jubilee and street parties, although excellent, are transient,” Mr Gove wrote.

“My suggestion would be a gift from the nation to Her Majesty… something tangible to commemorate this momentous occasion.”

However Mr Cameron’s spokesman said: “Clearly there is a difficult economic situation, there are scarce resources, and therefore we don’t think it would be an appropriate use of public money at the present time.”

‘Out of touch’

Labour Deputy Chairman Tom Watson said: “We’re all looking forward to the diamond jubilee. The significance of the occasion should be celebrated across the country.

“But Michael Gove has shown he is out of touch with this proposal.

My suggestion would be a gift from the nation to Her Majesty… something tangible to commemorate this momentous occasion. Michael Gove

“When school budgets are being slashed, parents will be wondering how Gove came even to suggest this idea. This is not the time to spend £60m on a yacht.”

‘It’s not too late’

However, former Tory foreign secretary Lord Hurd told Channel 4 News he “totally supports” what Michael Gove said in his letter. He said the decision to re-evaluate the role of the royal yacht was one of the mistakes of the John Major government – “but it’s not too late to put things right.”

Britannia, the last royal yacht, was launched in 1953 and was used by the Queen and the royal family for 44 years. Following Labour’s victory in the 1997 elections, it was announced that the ship would be retired and would not be replaced. The previous Conservative government had argued that the cost of the yacht was justified by its role in promoting British interests abroad.

There’s no reason why a royal yacht has to be limited to the royal family. Lord Hurd

Lord Hurd said his tours on board the royal yacht Britannia, alongside the Queen, were some of the key highlights of his career. He also described the decision by the Labour government to scrap the vessel as a “silly thing” because Britannia was a “major national asset.”

He told Channel 4 News: “It’s a pity we didn’t make sure people in the Labour party, like Tony Blair and Robin Cook, had a look on board. They would have been able to see what she (Britannia) did for the nation as a whole.”

When asked about how a new royal yacht could be funded, Lord Hurd replied: “There’s no reason why a royal yacht has to be limited to the royal family. Perhaps other people, who want to further a particular British cause, could borrow it.

“It should be put on the books of the Royal Navy, but I’m sure that in the context of the jubilee, some of the cost could be covered by businesses and external sponsors.”

‘Fantastic ambassador’

Plans to build a 650-foot ship, which would be used for royal visits as well as other duties, have received “substantial” backing, according to one royal author. Robert Hardman, who is supporting the Future Ship Project for the 21st Century (FSP21), told Channel 4 News that a consortium is in the “concept stages” of building a large ship as a successor to the Britannia.

“It would be used for royal visits, but that would only be about five per cent of its purpose,” he said. Among its other duties, the ship would be used to carry out oceanographic research and to educate young people.

“This yacht would be funded by big businesses, charities and individuals, so it would have no bearing on the taxpayer”, he said.

“It would be manned by 200 sea cadets who would sail the seven seas all year round as a fantastic ambassador to Britain.”