By Richard Wheeler and Alain Tolhurst, Press Association Political Staff
Jeremy Corbyn sought to heap pressure on the embattled Transport Secretary as he railed against the “utter shambles” of the Government’s no-deal Brexit plans.
The Labour leader expressed concern that Chris Grayling is in charge of a “major and vital aspect” of preparing for no deal, after the collapse of a £13.8 million ferry contract with Seaborne Freight, a company which had no ships.
He questioned how Theresa May could retain confidence in Mr Grayling in light of other transport woes.
But the Prime Minister hit back by suggesting Mr Corbyn avoided tackling wider Brexit issues due to doubts about his own position, adding: “People used to say he was a conviction politician – not any more.”
The pair opened Prime Minister’s Questions by paying tribute to England’s 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who has died aged 81.
Mr Corbyn then turned his attention to Seaborne Freight, which had hoped to provide additional cross-Channel services to ease disruption in the case of a no-deal withdrawal from the EU.
But the contract for services between Ramsgate and Ostend was terminated after Irish company Arklow Shipping stepped away from the deal.
Mr Corbyn said Mr Grayling had told MPs last month he was “confident the firm would deliver the service”, and asked: “What went wrong?”
Mrs May said the contract went to three companies, with the other two making up 90% of the capacity, with both still in place.
She said: “Due diligence was carried out on all of these contracts and, as Mr Grayling made clear earlier this week, we will continue to ensure we provide that capacity, which is important in a no-deal situation.”
Mr Corbyn continued, saying Mr Grayling had said the Seaborne Freight contract had “no cost to the taxpayer”, but a report by the National Audit Office found that £800,000 had been spent on external consultants.
He asked the PM if she wanted to “use this opportunity to correct the record?”
Mrs May accused the Labour leader of being “late to the party” after the issue was raised in the chamber yesterday by the SNP.
She added: “When these contracts were all let, proper due diligence was carried out – that included third-party assessment of the companies that were bidding for the contracts.
“There would have been a cost attached to this process, regardless of who the contracts were entered into with.”
Mr Corbyn also raised concerns over an increase to Thanet Council’s budget deficit as a result of the contract, with Mrs May replying that talks with the authority are continuing.
The Labour leader, concluding his remarks, said: “The spectacular failure of this contract is a symptom of the utter shambles of this Government and its no-deal preparations.
“The Transport Secretary ignored warnings about drones and airport security, gave a £1.4 billion contract to Carillion despite warnings over their finances, he oversaw the disastrous new rail timetables last year, rail punctuality at a 13-year low and fares at a record high – that is some achievement.
“Now the Transport Secretary is in charge of a major and vital aspect of Brexit planning. How on earth can the Prime Minister say she has confidence in the Transport Secretary?”
Mrs May defended Mr Grayling, saying he is delivering the “biggest rail investment programme since the Victorian era” and noting there were Brexit questions Mr Corbyn had avoided asking.
She said MPs do not know if Mr Corbyn backs a second referendum, backs a deal or backs Brexit.
The PM went on: “He prefers ambiguity and playing politics to acting in the national interest. People used to say he was a conviction politician – not any more.”