Royal yacht idea torpedoed

HM Yacht Britannia is now a visitor attraction
HM Yacht Britannia is now a visitor attraction

By Alex Stevenson

Michael Gove's proposal to give the Queen a new royal yacht has been openly mocked by Cabinet colleague Nick Clegg and No 10.

The Liberal Democrat leader ridiculed the suggestion by saying he always suspected "this would turn into a debate and the haves and the have yachts". He added: "It wouldn't be top of the list of priorities for scarce public resources."

Downing Street also quickly moved to distance itself from the idea. The prime minister'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."

Mr Gove had made the eyebrow-raising suggestion in a letter to culture, media and sport secretary Jeremy Hunt seen by the Guardian newspaper.

"I feel strongly that the diamond jubilee gives us a tremendous opportunity to recognise in a very fitting way the Queen's highly significant contribution to the life of the nation and the Commonwealth," he wrote.

"My suggestion would be a gift from the nation to her majesty; thinking about David Willetts's excellent suggestion of a royal yacht, and something tangible to commemorate this momentous occasion."

The proposal has generated intense opposition going beyond the anger of republicans and Lib Dems. In 1997, when the last yacht was taken out of service by the New Labour government, a replacement was estimated as costing at least £60 million.

Mr Gove hinted in the letter that he believed arguments in favour of lavish public spending this year were strengthened rather than diminished by Britain's stagnating economy and public spending austerity.

"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 wrote, adding: "The diamond jubilee must not be overshadowed by the Olympic Games, but form an integral part of this great year for our country."

Mr Gove argued the gift of a new royal yacht would be an appropriate way for the nation to express its thanks to the Queen, who celebrates her diamond jubilee later this year.

He told the Commons that he had not suggested using public money for the royal yacht, however.

The letter seen by the Guardian was dated December 17th. It was a follow-up to two earlier letters seen by, which show that Mr Gove had previously been aware the yacht would not be paid for by the taxpayer.

In a letter dated September 5th higher education minister David Willetts had informed the prime minister that a privately-funded Future Ship Project "with no government subsidy" could be made available "as a potential replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia".

On September 12th Mr Gove intervened to offer his own support for the project. "I agree, of course, that we should be clear that no public funding is available for this project, as this would not be appropriate in the current financial climate," he wrote.

"I do feel, however, that as a country with a long tradition of monarchy, we should be proud to honour our Queen in this way."

The education secretary appeared keen to spend public money in other ways if enough was available by the leaked letter of December 17th, as he pressed for more to be done "to achieve a longer lasting legacy" for the diamond jubilee.

"My suggestion would be a gift from the nation to Her Majesty; thinking about, for example, David Willetts' excellent suggestion for a royal yacht - and something tangible to commemorate this momentous occasion," he wrote.

"If there is not sufficient public money available then we could surely look for a generous private donation, for example, to give every school child a lasting memento of the occasion, or possibly to allow every school to buy a permanent reminder."

The leaked letter was distributed to No 10, Jeremy Hunt, "home affairs colleagues", the Foreign Office and the Cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Gus O'Donnell.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.