Beleaguered Chris Grayling was greeted by MPs with a mocking shout of ‘ahoy there’ as he finally faced questioning over a controversial £33million payout to settle a Eurotunnel lawsuit over no-deal Brexit ferries.
The embarrassed Transport Secretary finally made it to the Commons five days after the Government announced the deal with the Channel Tunnel operator over contracts worth £108million to import vital supplies.
He came to Parliament after a last-minute debate on the saga was arranged today and was met with the nautical shout – believed to have been made by Labour’s Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff.
But his appearance at the Dispatch Box came after he had refused to resign over the seven-figure use of taxpayers money and tried to pin the blame on other Cabinet ministers.
After being accosted by reporters as he arrived in Downing Street today for the weekly Cabinet meeting he claimed the decision had been taken ‘collectively’ by ministers on Department of Health advice and branded it ‘sensible’.
Asked if he felt under pressure to resign, he said: ‘I will carry on serving the Prime Minister as long as she wants me to.’
Press Association Parliamentary Editor Richard Wheeler was among those present when Mr Grayling was nautically welcomed to the Commons toda
Mr Grayling was widely criticised yesterday after he failed to appear before MPs to answer an urgent question on the huge payment to the Channel Tunnel operator, with Labour calling him an ‘international embarrassment’.
Instead Health Secretary Matt Hancock faced the grilling, leading to claims he was there as a ‘human shield’.
The Prime Minister has come under increasing pressure from the opposition to remove Mr Grayling but Downing Street has said she has ‘full confidence’ in him.
Mr Grayling told reporters today: ‘The decision that we took last week was taken by the Department of Health to protect drugs supplies to the UK in a no-deal in the same way as these contracts were let in the first place, after a discussion and a decision by a Cabinet committee because we had to prepare for all eventualities,’ he said.
‘We are still working for a deal, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but we have to be ready for all eventualities.
‘This was a sensible part of contingency planning to make sure that we had all resources that we needed, all the medical supplies that we needed for the NHS.
‘That is why the Cabinet took the decision that it did. That is why we collectively last week decided, however regrettable the Eurotunnel court action was, that we had to take a decision to protect the interests of the country in the circumstances of a no-deal Brexit. And that is the right thing to do.’
Labour branded Chris Grayling an ‘international embarassment’ over his handling of contracts for ferry companies in the event of a no-deal Brexit
The plan was designed to ease pressure on shipping capacity at nearby Dover if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal next month
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald tore into him, branding him a ‘departmental wrecking ball’ who had wasted more than £2 billion of taxpayers money during his Governmental career and should resign.
Mr McDonald said: ‘Almost every decision he made as Secretary of State for Justice was damaging and eventually reversed at significant cost to the taxpayer.
‘As Transport Secretary, he’s repeatedly thrown our transport networks into chaos, wasting obscene amounts of public money.’
Mr McDonald added: ‘Research into the total cost of the Secretary of State’s mistakes both in his current role and at the Department for Justice has found that he’s cost the taxpayer £2.27 billion.
‘That money could have paid for the annual salaries of 118,000 nurses, 94,000 secondary school teachers. Instead, it’s been squandered.’
Mr Hancock appeared on behalf of the Government yesterday to defend its decision to settle the action over the award of Brexit contracts to ferry firms, including one which had no ships, although failed to launch a personal defence of his Cabinet colleague.
When he was asked directly where Mr Grayling was, Mr Hancock replied: ‘The Transport Secretary is working hard on making sure we improve the transport system.’
It was announced last week that Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, would no longer challenge the Department for Transport’s decision to award deals worth £108 million to Seaborne Freight, DFDS and Brittany Ferries to lay on additional crossings to ports other than Dover in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Grayling’s catalogue of controversies gained international recognition in a New York Times article questioning how he survives.
Today he told MPs in the Commons he accepted there was a ‘legal risk’ linked to the Government’s approach to the ferry contracts but believed it was one worth taking given the need to guarantee medicine supplies in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
‘We knew in accelerating the procurement process there was a legal risk. That’s been highlighted in the NAO report.
‘However, it was my judgment and the judgment of my accounting officer and the judgment of those who vetted the plan across government that this was a risk we should take given the need to ensure that we had a supply of drugs into the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock arriving at Downing Street for Cabinet today. He would come face-to-face with Chris Grayling in the meeting the day after standing in for him to answer questions from furious MPs about the Brexit ferry payout
Mr Grayling, urged by Labour MP Peter Kyle to apologise for his decision, replied: ‘I very much regret the fact we were taken to court – it was a risk that we acknowledged was there but I stand by the decision to make sure that we could guarantee the supply of drugs to the NHS in the event of a no-deal Brexit.’
But McDonald added: ‘What he is laying bare today is that advice he received, he’s acted in contravention of that advice and he has lost.
‘What we’re asking for is not an absence of preparation for contingencies, what we’re asking for is a modicum of competence and he’s singularly failed.’
Grayling’s ferry failure: How the cross-channel no-deal Brexit plan descended into farce
Chris Grayling has been widely attacked over his December decision to award ferry contracts to cover the possibility of a no-deal Brexit causing problems at the UK’s borders:
- December 22: Department for Transport awards contracts worth £108 million to DFDS, Brittany Ferries and Seaborne Freight to lay on additional crossings to ports other than Dover in a no-deal Brexit.
- December 29; The news is revealed and the DfT says there was no time to put them out to tender.
- December 30: It is revealed that Seaborne Freight had been given a contract worth £13.8 million but owned no ships.
- January 2: Mr Grayling defended the decision as ‘supporting new businesses’. He insisted he had checked Seaborne Freight would be able to deliver goods between Kent and Belgium if needed in a no-deal scenario.
- January 3; It was alleged the firm’s website copied its terms and conditions from a takeaway shop, with a long run of small print that featured a section about ‘placing an order’ that placed an obligation on a customer to check their ‘meal’. It was later deleted.
- January 9: It was revealed Seaborne would not be ready to begin services until April, missing Brexit day on March 29.
- February 10: The contract with Seaborne is officially cancelled after it backers, Arklow Shipping, pulled out. The Government says no money changed hands.
- February 11: Eurotunnel launched a legal case against the DfT over the way the contracts were handed out to ferry firms.
- March 1: The Government agrees a £33 million deal with Eurotunnel and the firm drops the legal case.