Chris Grayling has insisted the Government thought it was worth taking a “risk” over Brexit ferry contracts after brushing aside calls to resign as Transport Secretary.
The Cabinet minister faced shouts of “ahoy there” and “peekaboo” from opposition MPs as he arrived in the Commons, a day after failing to appear to answer an urgent question on the controversial £33 million payout to Eurotunnel.
The payment was to settle a legal action brought by Eurotunnel after the Government awarded contracts to three ferry companies – one of which had no ships – to transport essential medical supplies from the EU if Britain leaves without a deal in place.
Mr Grayling said decisions on the matter were taken “collectively” by ministers, although he said they were “deeply sorry” it had not worked out as intended.
Labour accused Mr Grayling of admitting he had “acted in contravention” of legal advice and described him as a “departmental wrecking ball” as they renewed calls on him to resign.
Arriving for the weekly meeting of Cabinet, Mr Grayling made clear that he had no intention of bowing to opposition demands for him to go.
“I will carry on serving the Prime Minister as long as she wants me to,” he said.
Labour former minister David Hanson, speaking in the Commons after the SNP secured an emergency debate, asked if officials had advised that negotiations solely with ferry companies would result in a legal challenge by Eurotunnel.
Mr Grayling replied: “We knew in accelerating the procurement process there was a legal risk. That’s been highlighted in the NAO report.
“However, it was my judgment and the judgment of my accounting officer and the judgment of those who vetted the plan across government that this was a risk we should take given the need to ensure that we had a supply of drugs into the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald added: “What he is laying bare today is that advice he received, he’s acted in contravention of that advice and he has lost.
“What we’re asking for is not an absence of preparation for contingencies, what we’re asking for is a modicum of competence and he’s singularly failed.”
Mr Grayling replied: “We did not receive legal advice saying ‘do not do this’, we received legal advice saying that there was a risk in taking this approach and we judged collectively across government that this was a risk that was necessary to take in the national interest.”
He also told MPs: “We are working very hard to make sure that we are prepared for all eventualities, that is the responsible thing for Government to do. Sometimes you have to take some risks in doing that, but I think sensible governments take risks in the national interest.
“I and we and all of my colleagues who took this decision collectively stand by this decision, we’re deeply sorry that it did not work out in the way we’d intended, but the reality is it was the right decision to take because we were putting the national interest and particularly patients in our NHS first and that, Mr Speaker, you would expect any responsible Government to do.”
Mr McDonald later told the debate: “The record of this Transport Secretary is that of a departmental wrecking ball.”
SNP MP Joanna Cherry added that “in any normal, healthy functioning democracy this scandal would bring the Government down”.
But Tory former minister Sir Edward Leigh defended Mr Grayling, saying: “We believe that he was urging his colleagues for the last two years to make contingency planning for no-deal and he was frustrated by other people, perhaps in the Cabinet, who didn’t want to do so and if mistakes have been made because these decisions have been taken at the last moment, it’s not the fault of (Mr Grayling), but he’s too much of a gentleman to actually argue this in his own defence.”
Tory Charlie Elphicke (Dover) added: “The Secretary of State confronted with opportunism has made the best of a bad job to make sure that the investment, is invested to the good of the country not to fatten the profits of Eurotunnel.”