I would like to think that the lack of obvious progress on negotiating a post-Brexit deal with the EU is, as Theresa May said this week, part of a strategy – that there is a lot going on behind the scenes but it is not in our interests for the Government to give a ‘running commentary’ on it. But listening to the foreign secretary speaking before the Commons foreign affairs committee I am beginning to wonder. Maybe, actually nothing is going on.
Top of Boris’s ‘to do’ list, it seems, is not securing trade deals with the world beyond the EU. It is securing himself a royal yacht on which he can then swan around the world - perhaps doing a trade deal or two on the way. Notionally, the yacht would be for Her Majesty, but of course the Queen is cutting down her foreign tours on account of her age. The yacht – a £100 million replacement for Britannia, which was retired in 1997 and is now a museum in Leith docks – is really just a floating Chevening: the country house which Boris shares with Liam Fox and David Davis.
There may have been a time when trade deals were done aboard royal yachts, but it died with the ground nut scheme. I don’t know if Boris has noticed, but many of the capitals he should be visiting – like Beijing – are not even on the coast. True, there are businessmen who like to do business on board their yachts, but they are those who like to spend their time flitting between tax havens. They are not the sort whom the Government ought to be encouraging. If Boris wants to look serious about opening Britain to the world he can do it by travelling as most business people do: on commercial airliners.
The foreign secretary told the committee that he regrets that the Prime Minister has not made a higher priority of a royal yacht and will now seek funding for the £120 million cost from philanthropic businesses. But we know where Boris’s weakness for vanity projects leads: just look at the 'Garden Bridge', which was supposed to be privately funded but which, thanks to a deal with George Osborne when he was chancellor, it now transpires will cost us all £60 million if it is built and £22 million even if it is cancelled.
Four months ago we voted to leave the EU partly because we were fed up with extravagant officials living it up at our expense. We didn’t free ourselves from free-spending Eurocrats only to find ourselves paying for British ministers’ extravagance. Theresa May should go further than simply not making a royal yacht a priority: she should rule it out altogether and tell Boris to get on with his job.