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I see no ships, Mr Shapps


ON THE very day our ebullient Secretary of State for Defence, Grant Shapps, announced that the UK is to build up to 28 warships with landstrike capability, the news also broke that Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipyard which built the Titanic and, more importantly, has a £1.6 billion contract to construct Royal Navy ships, could face closure ‘amid reports of an intense government “row” over its future’. 

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is expected to block a financial support package to keep the 162-year-old firm afloat. It could collapse as a result, marking the end of centuries of shipbuilding in the city and certainly of Shapps’s dreams. Despite Harland & Wolff’s current £1.6billion contract to construct Royal Navy support ships, Hunt’s decision could mean that for the first time in British naval history our warships would be built abroad, most likely at the Spanish port of CadizAs ever, this government has no idea of what it is doing, is entirely uncoordinated and once again recklessly casual about British industry and the economies it supports, in this case Belfast. Either we have a Navy, which requires warships which in turn require shipyards, or we don’t.  

The litany of punchy press releases that we have endured since Rishi Sunak put us on a war footing last month continues. Having persuaded himself that he has solved the armed forces’ recruiting problems by allowing beards, with some 28 warships on order for the Navy now Mr Shapps sees ‘the dawn of a new, golden age of British shipbuilding’.

Back in the real world, all that has actually been decided is to launch the concept phase, which will eventually produce a design, which might then be built. No steel will be cut – not least because the blueprints don’t yet exist, never mind recent cuts to British Steel which have left the UK dangerously exposed to foreign markets. It’s nothing more than electioneering make-believe.

The Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) is intended to replace three existing types to enable the Navy to transport and deliver land forces to the beach. MRSSs are also intended as platforms for ‘littoral warfare’ – jargon for Royal Marines zipping about in power boats zapping His Majesty’s enemies. If there were no such thing as littoral warfare there would be no need for Royal Marines, so these ships are seen as crucial. Fans of the Parachute Regiment will point out that the Sierra Leone rescue in 2000 was arguably littoral warfare, which the Paras did by helicopter. There’s a lot of military politics behind this announcement, which becomes even more opaque when you factor in that some of the ships to be replaced by MRSS are not Royal Navy warships but Royal Fleet Auxiliary logistic vessels. Blood on the carpet is a certainty on this one.

The MRSS programme has been around for a while. Last year the Dutch were going to join in and a memorandum of understanding was signed. As is often the case with British multilateral warship programmes, the combination of reality and the Royal Navy’s unique requirements prevented collaboration. (That is not to say that RN warships are not good – they’re excellent and win many export contracts. They’re just conceptually different from French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch ones.)

While the Royal Navy’s shipbuilding hasn’t yet plumbed the depths that Scottish car ferry programmes have, the at-risk £200million subsidy to Harland & Wolff is rather less than the £300million and counting overcharge on the Scottish ferries, but even if they get the money H & W might not be out of the woods. Courtesy of the benighted Windsor Agreement that Rishi Sunak rushed to sign last year, for trade purposes Belfast is in the EU. There is already muttering about State Aid rules. How that affects pricing and work I have no idea – but it is another factor that will no doubt be considered. It gets more complicated when you factor in that on another Royal Navy contract (the Fleet Solid Support – FSS) H & W is a sub-contractor to the Spanish shipbuilder Navantia. Given the debate about Gibraltar, the Spanish are likely to seek to widen matters, especially if it brings more income to Spanish yards. I don’t think H & W shareholders can take much comfort from Lord Cameron’s proven inability to deal with the EU.

The Shapps media show didn’t mention the Type 32 Frigates although last month the programme was confirmed as still proceeding. Whether the Type 32 will just be a second batch of the Type 31 is not yet clear (it would make sense and save money). So far the MoD has spent £4million on preliminary design work. It’s a very long time since the Navy had three new types of frigate on order. The reality is that it needs more frigates, now. That needs shipyards, and that infrastructure, like so much in the UK generally, is in dire trouble.

Were he being candid and accurate, Mr Shapps would have said something like: ‘Today’s announcement is that we are not yet committing to spending money we haven’t got on a novel ship type that we don’t know that we need and we couldn’t crew in any case unless we bring back press gangs. We’re proposing to build some of them in a shipyard that’s going bust while it waits for another subsidy of more money that we don’t have, but we might not spend that due to political infighting. In any case by the time steel gets cut I’ll be out of office and you can all blame Sir Keir.’

Why did we elect such clowns?

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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