LONDON (Bywire News) - The government's controversial plans to spend £200m on a new Royal Yacht are set to be scuppered as it would contravene rules contained in a World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade deal that Boris Johnson himself negotiated.
Last month, the UK government announced plans to build a new national flagship - to replace HMS Britannia which was decommissioned in 1997 - in order to promote British trade and industry across the globe.
At the time, Johnson said that the vessel would reflect "the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”, and Number 10 proudly boasted that the ship would be built by British shipbuilders.
However, the proposals were also widely criticised, with many claiming that £200m was a huge waste of money, especially when the economy is facing major struggles due to the pandemic, and that there were other more important areas to focus cash on - with Labour's Bridget Phillipson saying:
"Right now our country faces huge challenges, and there’s no sign the government has a plan for the recovery.
“We want to see public money used for targeted investment in a green economic recovery, resources for our NHS, and supporting families to succeed."
But now, it appears that trade rules negotiated by the Prime Minister himself only eight months ago are set to scupper his contentious nautical project.
This is because, when Johnson's Ministers negotiated the Government Procurement Agreement with the WTO, they failed to ensure a clause enabling the UK to build its own civilian ships.
The GPA agreement negotiated by the UK government states that contracts for civilian ships must be put out to international competitive tender - in stark contrast to countries such as the US, Japan, Australia and Canada, whose own GPA agreements all explicitly exclude civilian shipbuilding.
Following the UK's GPA agreement being finalised, Trade Secretary Liz Truss said that allowing other countries to bid on such contracts would deliver "better value for UK taxpayers".
However, according to the Head of the International Trade team at legal firm Hogan Lovells, Aline Doussin, the plan to build the ship in the UK would indeed contravene the agreement struck by Johnson's government:
"It is likely that the GPA will be engaged, which means that open, fair and transparent conditions of competition will have to be met, and GPA country suppliers would have to be treated in the same manner as domestic ones", Doussin said.
Responding to the news, Labour's Emily Thornberry mocked the government's "incompetence", stating:
“It is yet more copper-bottomed, ocean-going incompetence from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and they need to get themselves on solid legal ground before spending any more public funds on this project”.
However, the government remains defiant - with a spokesperson stating that the ship would definitely still be built in the UK, and that the project would be "compliant with our obligations under the WTO GPA".
The government spokesperson did not give any further details about how exactly they planned to skirt the rules, but it has been widely suggested that they may attempt to claim the vessel is a military ship - which are excluded from the GPA.
This is despite the government clearly defining the vessel as a cvilian ship - stating in their announcement that the ship would be used "to host high level trade negotiations and trade shows and will sail all over the world promoting British interests."
Should the government attempt the move, it is widely expect to suffer numerous legal challenges.
(Writing by Tom D. Rogers, editing by Jess Miller.)