ON Tuesday he was delivering a body blow to Southampton’s cruise industry.

Fast forward 24 hours and shipping minister Mike Penning was in Southampton, on a luxury cruise ship, enjoying a free lunch with royalty.

It was Mr Penning who made the final decision to allow Liverpool to become a “turn-around” cruise ship port in the face of strong opposition from Southampton.

The minister was on the list of VIPs attending a gala lunch in one of the exclusive restaurants on board the Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth, in support of a maritime charity.

Stepping out of a champagne reception, attended by the Princess Royal, Mr Penning strongly defended his decision to grant Liverpool’s application for ships to be allowed to begin and end voyages on Merseyside.

“I had to make a decision which was in the best interests of UK plc and I believe that is what I did,” he told the Daily Echo.

“Whatever decision I reached, either Liverpool would consider me wrong or Southampton would be upset.”

The long running socalled Cruise Wars between north and south centred around the fact that Liverpool had received a cash hand-out from the Government and the European Union to build its present passenger terminal having pledged not host turn-around calls by cruise ships.

Meanwhile Southampton built up its reputation as northern Europe’s centre for cruising purely as a result of private investment.

Southampton had demanded Liverpool be forced to repay the full public funding before this permission was granted so the two ports could compete on a “level playing field’’.

In making his decision, Mr Penning said a one-off payment of £8.8m, or £12.6m over 15 years would be enough for restrictions to be lifted. The Merseysiders had offered just £5.5m against the Government’s original £9.2m grant.

“Southampton is the country’s premier centre for cruising and it will continue to be so,’’ said Mr Penning. “I am absolutely confident the amount of public money Liverpool now has to pay back is correct.

A figure was arrived at by an independent financial assessor and I then added a further sum to that amount.

“As yet Liverpool have not informed me what they intend to do, and this a matter entirely up to them.’’ Mr Penning said he had worked closely with Southampton and dock operators Associated British Ports on a number of projects.

“I was pleased to help Southampton by putting pressure on the authorities to ensure dredging would be carried out to assist the expansion of the container terminal,’’ said Mr Penning.

Liverpool’s leaders have vowed to press ahead with its plans by the end of this month without approval of the EU, which provided £8.6m towards the construction of the original passenger terminal.

The Princess Royal was in Southampton in her role as patron of Sea Vision UK, a charity established in 2003 to promote maritime activities and to encourage young people to consider a career at sea.