THE biggest threat to the future of the Royal Navy is the enemy within – the Treasury.
So say a group of MPs who have pointed the finger at the department that controls the purse strings of the government but who they claim have ‘sunk more ships’ than any adversary the nation has faced in war.
The shock admission came during a debate into the future of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers – both of which will be based in Portsmouth.
The cross-party parliamentary discussion aimed to look how Britain intended to operate its Queen Elizabeth-class supercarriers when deployed.
It came as rumours resurfaced that ‘sources’ within the Treasury were still considering ‘mothballing’ the second of the carriers, HMS Prince of Wales – which is currently nearing the end of her build in Rosyth – in a bid to save cash.
Tory MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan – who sits on the public accounts committee scrutinising government spending and who has strong links with the Treasury – was among those raising her concerns about Prince of Wales’s future.
She said: ‘Unlike the French, who only have the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, the beauty of having two of these great ships is that we can ensure that we have that at-sea capability 365 days a year.
‘I hope the minister will reassure the house today that rumours emanating from Treasury sources that it might be fine to mothball or sell Prince of Wales are unfounded. We need two ships to provide 365 days of output.’
Dr Julian Lewis, chairman of the government’s influential defence select committee, echoed the concerns and demanded answers from armed forces minister, Mark Lancaster.
Dr Lewis said: ‘The Treasury can be regarded as the main adversary, I think the Treasury has probably sunk more ships in the Royal Navy than any other enemy we have faced.’
He also took a tongue-in-cheek potshot at Chancellor Philip Hammond, who’s diplomatic trip to China last month was axed by Beijing following comments by defence secretary Gavin Williamson that HMS Queen Elizabeth would sail to the disputed stretch of the South China Sea as part of her maiden deployment in 2021.
‘It was gratifying to see a bit of advance retaliation in that HMS Queen Elizabeth appears to have sunk the Chancellor’s visit to the Communist Chinese without even having embarked on its first operational voyage,’ he said as MPs laughed.
Tory Robert Courts, who called the debate, said the navy needed more mass and was worried by the lack of British escort ships for the carriers.
Mr Courts said Britain’s enemies would be looking to discover the carriers’ weaknesses and warned the navy should have more vessels of its own to protect the 65,000-tonne vessels and not rely on allies like the US to operate with.
‘This is not a lament for lost naval power, although I make no secret of the fact that, as far as I am concerned, we do not spend enough on defence,’ he said. ‘Our armed forces are constantly being asked to do too much with too little.’
Other questions were raised about whether Britain would continue to invest in F-35B stealth jets once its first batch of 48.
Mr Lancaster did not answer all the specific questions directly but said Britain was ‘committed’ to purchasing 138 of the aircraft, yet added: ‘When it comes to ordering future aircraft, and the question of what type they should be—B, A or other variants—that is a decision we do not yet have to make.’
The minister did not specifically address the rumour about HMS Prince of Wales by name. However, he put his confidence behind the carrier, and told MPs: ‘Once our Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, including HMS Prince of Wales when accepted at the end of the year, become fully operational—we have already highlighted that timeframe—the United Kingdom will maintain a carrier ready to deploy at very high readiness, that is, within five days.
‘The new capability will enable the UK to make an unparalleled European contribution to NATO, the cornerstone of our defence policy
‘Indeed, carrier strike is “international by design”, with the convening power of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers already evident.’