The construction programme was promised by David Cameron prior to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 - but as early as April, shipbuilders on the Clyde feared their jobs were at risk amid rumours the Type 26 construction programme could be pushed back to 2017.
Former first sea lord Admiral Lord West last month told the House of Commons Defence Committee that cutting steel on the new ships on the Clyde had been put back from 2016 because “there’s almost no money available this year, and we are really strapped next year”.
But the MoD’s chief executive for equipment Tony Douglas told the committee on Wednesday that no start date had yet been set because design of the warships was only 60 per cent complete.
And defence minister Harriett Baldwin denied that suppliers involved in the £8 billion programme had been told to “mothball” their contributions for up to three years.
Defence committee chairman Julian Lewis warned that delays in getting the state-of-the-art warships into service could end up costing money, as the operating life of the Type 23 craft they are replacing may have to be extended.
Industry insiders and experts had told the committee that there was a shortfall of around £750 million in the sums needed to press ahead with construction, he said, adding: “We believe that if the money was there, this programme could start very soon.”
But Mr Douglas said that cash was not the issue, as the MoD was still negotiating with BAE Systems over the final design of the ship’s communications systems and computer networks.
“If you were building an extension on the back of your house, you wouldn’t get it priced if it was only 60 per cent designed,” Mr Douglas said.
“We are in a good place right now, but with 60 per cent design fixity, this is about driving it to closure, which is the road we are on.”
Mr Douglas declined to say when the Government would be in a position to name a start date for construction, but said it should come in “the relative short term”.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones told the committee he was “entirely comfortable” with progress on the Type 26.
“What we are working on now is the maturity of the design, the readiness of the industrial partner to be able to build it in the way we want to build it, the way it will be sequenced with other types of ship under the National Ship Building Strategy,” he told the committee.
“It is not that we are not ready to build it, it is not that we don’t have the money to build it, or that we haven’t already committed substantial amounts of money for long lead items.”
Dr Lewis warned: “If it turns out costing a lot more because we didn’t start it as early as we could have done with a bit more cash at this stage, you will understand that the public won’t be satisfied.”
The SNP’s defence spokesman Brendan O’Hara described the latest development as an ‘absolute disgrace’, adding: “Harriet Baldwin’s comments will have been no comfort to the workers on the Clyde.
“This would be an utter betrayal to those workers – their families and the communities that depend on the work.
“We have had assurance after assurance from Tories at Westminster and Scotland and now we are facing the continuing uncertainty and mismanagement of this vital project.
“It would be completely unacceptable and unforgivable if the Clyde yards had to pay the price for the Tory obsession with Trident - a weapon of mass destruction that 58 out of Scotland 59 MPs opposed this week – and an economic black hole caused by Brexit.”