CHANCELLOR George Osborne has announced an ambitious warship building programme which guarantees work on the Clyde and Rosyth for 25 years.
During a visit to Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, yesterday, he said he had asked defence chiefs to look at the viability of building a new complex warship every two years for a quarter of a century.
Opponents claimed Mr Osborne was “repackaging an old announcement” but it means the work on the Clyde and Rosyth will be protected from the swingeing defence cuts announced by defence secretary Michael Fallon earlier this week.
Concerns have been raised that more austerity measures could see the Ministry of Defence’s budget slashed by 20 per cent and this had put into doubt the £4 billion contract for new Type 26 frigates.
The Govan and Scotstoun yards were promised the contracts for the new state of the art Type 26 frigates after the First Sea Lord, Admiral George Zambellas, was forced to withdraw a threat to break UK conventions of building warships in domestic yards and hand contracts to France.
Building the new ships on the Clyde was one of the main pledges made by all pro-UK parties during the Scottish referendum. They had argued that only British yards have built British warships except during the two world wars and that the work would have gone to England if Scots had backed independence.
However, the contract with BAe Systems which was supposed to be signed last year has still not been confirmed.
But a bullish Chancellor yesterday made it clear he wanted investment in the UK’s defence industry to remain protected.
In a Tweet from Portsmouth, Mr Osborne said: “Asked @DefenceHQ to look at potential to build a new complex warship every 2 years – renewing @royalnavy fleet every 25 years.”
Later, in a statement, he added: “Ensuring a better and more secure future for Britain means equipping our Royal Navy for the challenges of the 21st century. It is only because we have a long-term economic plan that we able to invest in our national security. Our ambition is to deliver the most modern Navy in the world, which the government believes is a national necessity. It will maintain and create jobs and deliver a more secure future for Britain.”
The shipbuilding unions welcomed the stability offered by the Chancellor’s announcement.
Jim Moohan of the GMB and chairman of the Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions alliance said: “This gives us the realistic longterm period we need as a platform for the shipbuilding industry. I would say 25 years is a welcome and realistic period.
“It has taken 30 years for the industry to turn itself around but we are now in a position after the Type 45 Destroyer and aircraft carrier contracts, as well as the Type 26 frigate contracts which are coming up, to show we can put together a quality product and take on our competitors in the Far East and Europe.” He added: “Hopefully we can use these contracts to further build up our skill base and start to also produce complex commercial ships.”
Responding on behalf of the Royal Navy, the First Sea Lord said: “I am delighted by the Chancellor’s announcement.
“The commitment to a new national shipbuilding strategy is not just a very significant investment in the UK’s shipbuilding future. It is also a powerful statement our nation’s global interests will be protected by a credible, world class Navy – equipped with fast-jet aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers and frigates which will be the best and most modern in the world.”
But the announcement also underlines the importance of defence in an election year. Mr Osborne made his announcement in Portsmouth where the Tories are defending one marginal seat and trying to win a second. And it came hours before the Scottish Tories announced their candidates for the seven Glasgow seats.
Andrew Morrison, the newly selected candidate for Glasgow East, said: “This announcement will be a real reassurance to many people in Glasgow who still rely on shipbuilding.
“The importance of the UK shipbuilding industry to Scotland wasn’t just a line given in the referendum campaign to persuade people to vote No. It’s real – there are skills and expertise on the Clyde that have been built up for generations which are very attractive to the MoD.”
Labour shadow defence minister Gemma Doyle, MP for West Dunbartsonshire, said: “Labour has always been committed to retaining a sovereign shipbuilding capability and we need certainty over the Type 26 order sooner rather than later.
“When the future of the yards was at risk last year, it was Labour who were making the case that orders from the MoD were integral to safeguarding Scottish shipbuilding jobs. Scottish Labour will never stop fighting for contracts for our yards. “
SNP defence spokesman and Westminster leader Angus Robertson pointed out that the contract for the new frigates has still been delayed and defence spending is due to be slashed in the next parliament.
He said: “George Osborne is clearly on the election trail but the truth is Westminster wants to keep on slashing defence spending, with massive cuts threatened after the election to help pay for Trident. The sooner the Clyde workforce can get on with what they do best – with the much-promised and long-awaited Type 26 programme – the better.”
Tim Ripley: There are no Tory votes in warships order for Glasgow
George Osborne had himself photographed on a Royal Navy warship in Portsmouth harbour yesterday as part of a drive to talk up a £100 million investment in the south coast dockyard.
It is no surprise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the mastermind of the Tory Party’s general election campaign is suddenly taking an interest in the future of the Navy’s main base – it is within a stone’s throw of half a dozen marginal constituencies on Osborne’s must-win list. Osborne, whose interest in defence has up to now been minimal, appears to be “weaponising” jobs in Portsmouth dockyard and put it square and centre of his election campaign in the south of England.
Compare the treatment that the Clyde shipyards are receiving. There are no votes for the Conservatives in Glasgow, so the order to build the first new Type 26 frigate still seems to be hanging in the wind.
It had been intended that the multi-billion order for the Royal Navy’s new warships would have been placed with BAE Systems “before the end of 2014” but that target has been and gone with no contract dropping out of the Ministry of Defence. It now appears that the frigate project will have to fight its corner in the defence review that is to take place after the election, along with bids by the Army for new tanks, a pitch by the RAF for new fighter jets and the proposed replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent. The Type 26 is getting pushed back and looks like it will be squeezed.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon dropped heavy hints this week that the defence budget is going to face another major round of cuts after the election.
While the Navy will fight hard for its new frigates, it is inevitable that the process of crunching the budget numbers during the defence review will result in considerable delays to the Type 26 project and mean that to get its ships, the senior service will have to cut back the number on order and the expensive weapons and sensors to go on them.
This is all bad news for the shipyards of Glasgow. Their votes will not swing the election in favour of a Tory majority. It seems unlikely the George Osborne will be heading to the Clyde any time soon.
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