No Conservative can feel happy about the end of ship-building at Portsmouth. This is the end of an 800-year era. When Philip Hammond announced the decision to the Commons yesterday, he admitted that it will be “a harsh blow” to the port.
All is not lost at Portsmouth: as Hammond went on to say, “Portsmouth will remain one of two home ports for the Navy’s surface fleet, and will continue to undertake the vital support and maintenance work that sustains our most complex warships, including the Type 45 destroyers and, of course, the aircraft carriers themselves. Indeed, with both carriers based in Portsmouth, the tonnage of naval vessels based in the port will be at its highest level since the early 1960s, sustaining a total of around 11,000 jobs in the dockyards and related activities.”
But the Clyde has won the battle to build our future warships. It is, however, clear that this victory is conditional on Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. One can see why supporters of Portsmouth feel aggrieved that the decision to give these orders to the Clyde has been affected by the wider consideration of the future of the Union between England and Scotland.
In his statement, Hammond mounted a successful business case for what he proposes to do. He pointed out that Labour blundered in 2008 by placing an order for the aircraft carriers “before the ship had been designed…anybody who has ever tried to place a contract to build a house before the house has been designed will know that this is a licence to print money for the contractor”.
Before you order something, you have to work out exactly what you can afford: a simple truth which has often been avoided at the Ministry of Defence. Nor can one say that the tradition of ordering more than we can actually pay for is definitively at an end. We shall have to wait for the 2015 defence review to see whether the second aircraft carrier will be brought into service, or whether Portsmouth will have the privilege of preserving it in a mothballed state.
By maintaining ship-building on the Clyde, the Government has taken a decision which is defensible in business terms, and has avoided handing a pre-referendum gift to the Scottish National Party. But much hard work will be needed by Conservatives on the south coast of England in order to prevent the end of ship-building at Portsmouth becoming, as one correspondent in this morning’s Times calls it, “a gift to UKIP”.