Transport Secretary Chris Grayling faced mounting demands for his resignation from MPs across the Commons after a controversial no-deal Brexit ferry contract awarded to a firm with no ships was cancelled.
The Transport Secretary’s decision to award Seaborne Freight a contract worth £13.8 million to run services between Ramsgate and Ostend had attracted widespread criticism.
The Department for Transport (DfT) said it had decided to terminate the contract after Irish company Arklow Shipping, which had backed Seaborne Freight, stepped away from the deal.
But MPs – including pro-EU Tories – said Mr Grayling should take responsibility for the situation and resign.
Conservative former business minister Anna Soubry said Mr Grayling “should be quietly considering his position”.
“Chris Grayling holds a critical position in government, trying to mitigate what would be a very serious crisis for the country if we leave the European Union without a deal,” she told the Observer.
“He has no grip on the very serious nature of his job. The Prime Minister should also be considering whether there is not someone else who could do the job better.”
Labour said Mr Grayling “has to go”, with Jeremy Corbyn describing the situation as “completely ludicrous”.
The Labour leader said: “Chris Grayling the Transport Secretary claimed the Government had ‘looked very carefully’ at Seaborne Freight before giving the company the contract, but apparently not carefully enough to notice that it didn’t have any ships.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “The Government did not need a siren’s call to get into chaos over a contract with a ferry company, all they needed was to put Chris Grayling in charge.”
A DfT spokeswoman said: “Following the decision of Seaborne Freight’s backer, Arklow Shipping, to step back from the deal, it became clear Seaborne would not reach its contractual requirements with the Government. We have therefore decided to terminate our agreement.
“The Government is already in advanced talks with a number of companies to secure additional freight capacity, including through the port of Ramsgate, in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”
Brexit-backing Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned whether Leo Varadkar’s Irish Government had any influence on Arklow’s decision – something Dublin strongly denied.
Mr Grayling last month defended the Seaborne Freight contract, insisting it was “not a risk”.
It was one of three firms awarded contracts totalling £108 million in late December to lay on additional crossings to ease the pressure on Dover when Britain leaves the EU, despite having never run a Channel service.
The department said it had been Arklow Shipping’s backing that gave it confidence in the viability of the deal, and that it stands by the robust due diligence carried out on Seaborne Freight.
It added no taxpayer money had been transferred to the company.
Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said: “The whole exercise is a complete and utter shambles, with the Government ignoring union calls on what needs to happen.
“Instead they are blundering on from crisis to crisis.”