‘For yacht’s sake’, Conservative spin doctors were caught mouthing as they hurried through Whitehall. In a parallel universe this morning.
On the day it emerged that quitting the European Union would cost £66bn a year, the news that the Tories might give the go-ahead to a boat costing millions was leapt upon by the Labour opposition. It sat neatly in the slipstream of the Brexit news, and supplied visual punch to the geopolitical crisis of Brexit that was slowly unfolding.
Quickly, the story struck a sour note with the public at large. Here was a spectacle of Conservatives hankering after an expensive object whose mission in life was to float expectantly up to countries whose leaders may or may not toss a few trade deals on board. It made for a pathetic image. Less Britannia unchained, more Britannia diminished.
But, now unleashed, Tory MPs could vent their long-cherished anger at the 1997 decision to block a new royal yacht. Their opposite numbers taunted them with the memory of a Labour government choosing not to waste valuable taxpayer cash. Even if Telegraph readers had generously offered to give up their winter fuel payment to finance the floating monster.
The newspapers enjoyed it: All at sea. Holed beneath the waterline. Drifting in the doldrums. May-day! One cartoonist sketched the Royal Yacht Britannia as a lifeboat with the prime minister and the three Brexiteers clambering in. Rumours circulated that Philip Green would part-fund the new yacht. That it would feature in the next James Bond movie. And it would ‘bring the tourists in’.
Surely now Labour could tie other similar-sounding stuff together into an attack that rang true: the government committing over £20m to a doomed ‘garden bridge’, Tories splurging public money on Kids Company, £3bn to tip the NHS upside-down. A government that has wasted money, strangled the health service, and brought about a Brexit that will impoverish everybody.
Over in that parallel universe is the political space the Labour party drove its tanks into and shunted the royal yacht back into the last millennium, where it belongs.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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