Business Secretary Vince Cable has cast major doubt over a survival plan for shipbuilding in Portsmouth.
He told a national newspaper that he did not think the £150m project was ‘a runner.’
The business secretary’s dismissive stance is a major blow for BAE Systems and its workforce.
Around 1,300 jobs are dependent on the company’s plan to build two offshore patrol vessels to avoid a construction gap from 2014, when work in Portsmouth is due to be completed on the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
A BAE review has put the future of shipbuilding in Portsmouth under threat, with the yard thought to be the most likely candidate for closure by the company.
Workers have pinned hope on the offshore patrol vessels project, but Mr Cable is quoted by The Guardian newspaper today as saying: ‘I don’t think it’s a runner. It would only be a runner if there was a demand from the armed services.’
Mr Cable defended the Government’s help for shipbuilding in Portsmouth. ‘There is a lot of interest in developing Portsmouth’s capabilities for the marine industry in general,’ he said. ‘The facilities currently used for shipbuilding could be utilised for a wider range of marine technologies.
‘It is possible that they may have other boats that they want to build there and that may be extremely good news, but the Local Enterprise Partnership and the county council are thinking hard about developing alternatives and we are supporting them in that.’
The Ministry of Defence said that the Royal Navy’s equipment plan does not include any offshore patrol vessels.
‘We continue to work closely with the company, who are exploring how best to sustain their shipbuilding capability in the future,’ it said in a statement.
Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt said she thought Vince Cable’s comments were ‘odd’.
Ms Mordaunt said having an order of Ocean Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to fill the two-year gap after construction of the navy’s new carriers made sense.
And if the navy decided it does not want to crew the OPVs, they could be sold to foreign navies.
She said: ‘I find Cable’s comment rather odd because what we should be thinking is if something is cost effective and there is a need for it we should do it.
‘I don’t think anyone could argue there isn’t a need for the navy to have a couple more hulls.
‘If we have got a two-year gap we have got a problem because you need to retain people and skills so we have to spend money to retain that capability.
‘If you’re going to spend money getting people to twiddle their thumbs for two years aren’t you better spending money on something for them to do and if you didn’t want to crew them you could sell them.’