A consortium led by defence group Babcock International has won the competition to build new frigates for the Royal Navy, securing hundreds of jobs at British shipyards, including in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The deal throws a potential lifeline to Belfast’s Harland & Wolff, the builder of the Titanic that fell into administration last month. It will also provide a much-needed boost for Ferguson Marine Engineering, which is poised to be taken over by the Scottish government after collapsing in August. Both yards are members of the Babcock consortium.
Boris Johnson, who is due to name the preferred bidder on Thursday, will hope that the announcement will burnish his credentials as a strong supporter of the United Kingdom.
Pledging to bring “shipbuilding home”, the prime minister said the UK was “an outward-looking island nation, and we need a shipbuilding industry and Royal Navy that reflect the importance of the seas to our security and prosperity”. However, warships have always been built in the UK.
Stephen Kerr, the Conservative MP for Stirling, said the news was “absolutely fantastic” for Scotland and would provide “new jobs for young Scots”.
Mr Johnson has struggled to marry his party’s focus on the union with his drive towards a hard Brexit, highlighted by the resignation of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson last month.
Party insiders said that if an election were held this year, it expected to lose the majority of its MPs in Scotland. The Babcock news will probably be cited by Mr Johnson during a campaign as an example of how the Conservatives are investing in companies across the union.
The Scottish National party has accused the UK government of breaking promises made before the 2014 independence referendum by cutting the number of more sophisticated Type 26 frigates to be built by BAE Systems in Glasgow.
The competition to build five Type 31e frigates for £1.25bn was launched in February 2017 but concerns have been raised about the cut-price budget. The ships, which are intended to carry out maritime security, interdiction and other tasks, will replace the Type 23s. The first ship is due to be delivered in 2023.
Unions had previously warned of job losses at Babcock’s Rosyth yard if it failed to win the competition, with work on building the navy’s two aircraft carriers starting to come to an end.
The Babcock consortium includes Thales, as well as H&W and Ferguson. Under the original proposal, the plan was to assemble the vessels at Rosyth using “blocks” built by H&W and Ferguson. It remained unclear if the role of H&W and Ferguson in the consortium would be affected by their predicament.
Mr Johnson will also use the announcement as part of a wider pledge to reinvigorate British shipbuilding and strengthen the Royal Navy, which has come under scrutiny following Iran’s seizure of a UK tanker.
Mr Johnson is appointing Ben Wallace, defence secretary, as shipbuilding tsar, with the task of working across government to enhance the “shipbuilding enterprise”.
The Type 31 programme is a key part of the UK’s national naval shipbuilding strategy, itself a response to an independent review in 2016 by industrialist John Parker. It recommended that ships be designed with exports in mind and collaboration between shipbuilders, reversing a policy that had left BAE Systems the main supplier of naval vessels.
The Babcock consortium won in the face of competition from a BAE-led team and one led by Atlas Elektronik UK.
Babcock declined to comment.
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