Video analysis from ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks
Chris Grayling has been branded an “international embarrassment” during a Commons mauling, despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock acting as a “human shield” for him.
Labour issued fresh calls for the Transport Secretary to be sacked after he failed to appear before MPs to answer an urgent question about a £33 million Brexit-related payment to Eurotunnel.
Mr Hancock appeared on behalf of the Government to defend its decision to settle a legal 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.
Downing Street said that Prime Minister Theresa May continues to have full confidence in Mr Grayling.
Asked why the Transport Secretary was not answering a question from his Labour shadow about ferry contracts, Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “The settlement with Eurotunnel was a cross-Government decision, as the provision of freight capacity was largely designed to secure the ongoing supply of crucial medicines, medical supplies and veterinary medicines.
“So it’s entirely appropriate for the Health Secretary to answer the question.”
The Labour whips office said the Government had confirmed Mr Hancock was acting as “human shield” for Mr Grayling.
Speaking in the Commons, shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Even in this golden age of ministerial incompetence, the Transport Secretary stands out from the crowd.
“He leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, causing chaos and wasting billions of pounds yet he shows no contrition, no acknowledgement of his mistakes nor any resolve to learn and improve.
“He’s now ridiculed in the New York Times, the mayor of Calais has banned him from his town – the Transport Secretary has become an international embarrassment.”
Mr McDonald went on: “The public deserve to know how many more calamities is the Prime Minister prepared to tolerate and how many more billions of pounds will she allow him to waste before saying enough is enough.
“This country cannot afford this Transport Secretary. He should be sacked without delay.”
SNP transport spokesman Alan Brown added: “Where is the £2.7 billion man? I’ve asked him to step aside several times, I’ve challenged the Prime Minister to sack him and now he’s got his own social media hashtag #FailingGrayling, surely now is the time that he has to go?”
Mr Grayling was earlier panned by MPs over his role in probation reforms, which prompted Labour’s Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) to note: “I must say I think this must be making parliamentary history this afternoon, two urgent questions about the same incompetent minister causing mayhem and chaos in two different departments and he doesn’t even have the face to come here and front it out and what we’re left with is Hancock’s Half Hour?”
Mr Hancock replied: “In the Hancock family we’re very proud of Hancock’s Half hour and we thought that Tony was a very funny man.”
Commons Speaker John Bercow intervened: “Yes, it’s worth pointing out that that Hancock was deliberately funny.”
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.
The piece said: “He has bumbled his way from one government post to another, accused of making a hash of each, and becoming a byword for haplessness in a golden age of political blundering in Britain.”