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JAMES BALL: Chris Grayling’s £14m ferry farce suggests it’s time to panic

View of Ramsgate marina. Kent. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

James Ball says Chris Grayling’s £14m ferry farce suggests it’s time to stop taking a collective nap and start panicking

Transport Minister Chris Grayling. Photo: Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

If it weren’t a portent of the possible collapse of our country in three months’ time – Happy New Year everyone! – the case of the UK’s £14 million ferry contract could be an early contender for one of the funniest political stories of 2019, even just days in.

Reports emerged over the Christmas break that the Department for Transport had awarded a contract to run ferries to a company called Seaborne Freight – which has not only never run a freight ferry service, but which also appears to neither own nor operate any boats.

This service would be part of a vital effort to reduce pressure on Dover in the event of no-deal, helping lorries travel to and from Belgium, keeping essential supply routes open. The service would need to be up and running in less than 90 days. And the contract was awarded without any open tendering, in an ’emergency’ tender.

Asked why his department had allowed such an important contract to be awarded to a company with no obvious track record in the area, secretary of state Chris Grayling could have offered a range of answers. He could – if it’s the case – had said Seaborne was a new company with very established figures, or that they had a detailed plan to secure the boats in time, or detailed penalty clauses and fall-back plans to justify the deal.

That’s not what he did. Instead, on the Today programme this week, Grayling said he was pleased his department was ‘supporting a new British business’. Commendable as that idea is, delivering critical infrastructure is probably not the best testing ground. What next: handing over the shipping of nuclear waste to Apprentice candidates? Volunteer have-a-go-hospital consultants?

It’s understandable why Grayling – a man who seems to have created an absolute shambles in every government job he’s ever done, but who has remained in cabinet role after cabinet role all the same – might not value expertise, but it should worry us all regardless.

Wasteful as it may seem, and political as it may seem, with only three months to go before we are due to leave the EU, any government would be negligent not to award no-deal contracts and spend no-deal money at this stage.

Those of us on the Remain side might resent what we hope will be a waste of money, but realistically given the harm a no-deal could cause – chaos, shortages, and even deaths – not spending that money would be wildly irresponsible.

If there is even a one-in-20 chance of no-deal, we need to prepare for it, and while with Brexit no-one knows anything, those odds could easily be much higher.

There is fairly obviously no parliamentary majority for no-deal. There is also, though, no obvious parliamentary majority at this stage for anything else. Given how many irrational actors there are around the Brexit process, and given there is a ticking clock that is very hard to amend, we are being wildly and irrationally optimistic if we claim no-deal isn’t a risk.

What we can and should say instead is that not enough is being spent to prepare for it: last year The New European reported that the police service in Northern Ireland had been allocated just £2m to prepare for no-deal – and hadn’t even received it. That’s one of the services that would suddenly find itself in charge of helping enforce a new hard border, and with less than a year before the Brexit date, it had no funds to make plans, buy equipment, or take any other steps.

Three months is nowhere near enough to get the UK ready for no-deal. Two years would not have been enough: getting the proper long-term equipment for all the necessary border checks into Dover would require major rebuilding of the port (the area which used to host many of these checks was long ago demolished and repurposed at the crowded site).

There are many such projects that need doing and would have needed starting long ago. There is no possibility of no-deal happening without major impacts.

What the government is preparing for then, is back-up plans to try to turn absolute chaos into something manageable – to try to hold the country together, to keep some food on the shelves, to keep people able to receive medicines they need, and to try to prevent the south east becoming one big lorry park.

The government has more than 320 such workstreams to complete to try to mitigate this damage, many of them enormously complex, and many of them technical too. Chris Grayling’s £14m ferry service with no boats is one small component of just one of those workstreams.

It is inconceivable that Grayling’s ferry policy is the only bit of planning that has gone awry. If one piece of our emergency planning is so inadequate, why should we have any faith in the 300+ more than we know nothing whatsoever about?

It is, to be blunt, time to start panicking. There are plenty of paths to avoiding no-deal – even though time is running out quicker than we think, it is certainly still not May’s deal or no-deal.

But we shouldn’t let our dislike of this outcome blind us to its risk, or to the need to try to at least cushion the blow – parliament should be pushing on this daily, as should the media.

We are less than 90 days away from the cliff edge, and rather than trying to hit the brakes or turn the steering wheel, we’re taking a collective nap. We don’t have long left to wake up.

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