Jacob Rees-Mogg hinted towards “Irish Government involvement” in an Irish company backing out of a ferry contract made under no-deal Brexit plans. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling awarded contracts to three companies, including one with no ships. The £13.8 million deal with Seaborne Freight fell through this week, leading to fresh calls for Mr Grayling to quit. Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg declared: “My right honourable friend cannot possibly be criticised for entering into a contract that cost the taxpayer no money, with a new business backed by one of the biggest shipping owners in Europe.
“Is it not eccentric of Arklow to behave in the way that it has, to abandon a contract that it was supporting a fortnight ago?
“And is there any question of the Irish Government’s involvement, either to help or to hinder one of its biggest businesses?”
The Transport Secretary responded: “Well Mr Speaker I don’t think it would be for me to ascribe any motivations to Arklow for the decision they’ve taken.
“I regret them having taken that decision, I think it’s a shame.
“I think it’s a shame particularly since they gave clear commitments to Seaborne at Christmas time, to officials, to myself in January, and then changed their mind suddenly.
“I don’t know what prompted that decision, I just think it’s a very great shame.”
In response to calls to quit made by Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald, Mr Grayling also told MPs: “He clearly wasn’t listening when I said we’ve spent no money on this contract.”
He defended his department’s no-deal Brexit planning, adding the Seaborne Freight contract was “assured jointly” by DfT and Treasury officials.
Mr Grayling quoted at length a letter from Arklow Shipping which gave assurances over Seaborne Freight.
Mr Grayling earlier said there are “contractual options” to replace the Seaborne Freight capacity with “additional capacity on routes in the North Sea and this is an option we’ll be discussing across government in the coming days”.
Seaborne Freight was supposed to run a freight ferry service between Ramsgate and Ostend in Belgium if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
Mr Grayling’s decision to award the contracts to three ferry companies is being challenged at the High Court.
Eurotunnel, which operates the Channel Tunnel, says the contracts totalling £108 million were awarded through a “secretive and flawed procurement process”.
But the Department for Transport (DfT) argues that the “extreme urgency” of preparations for Brexit on March 29 justified the process.
At a hearing in London on Monday, Eurotunnel’s barrister Daniel Beard QC said the procurement process for “additional capacity for transport of goods across the English Channel” had been “undertaken without any public notice being issued”.
Mr Beard said Eurotunnel only found out “when contract notices were published three days after Christmas”, adding that it was “quite remarkable” his client had not been informed given its recent history in running cross-Channel services.
He submitted that Eurotunnel was “an operator who actually ran a ferry service three years ago”, and was therefore not “speculating” about its ability to run cross-Channel services but “has actually done it”.