NEWS
11/02/2019 13:44 GMT | Updated 11/02/2019 13:56 GMT

How The Seaborne Freight Saga Became Prime Contender For A Brexit 'The Thick Of It' Reboot

We'll laugh about it one day...

Armando Iannucci, the creator of the classic political comedy The Thick Of It  told HuffPost UK last year that the modern world is too “bizarre and unreal” to satirise.

He said: “When people ask if I would do a Brexit version I think no, because it’s all playing out in front of us. And I find it difficult in the end to maintain my sense of humour about it.”

But that was before the Seaborne Freight saga.

A ferry service with no ferries accused of pizza shop plagiarism, and a transport secretary hanging on by a thread – surely a story begging to be the prime contender for the first satirical Brexit comedy.

On Monday Labour will ask an urgent question in parliament amid calls for Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to resign. So how did the absence of a few ferries come to this? Here’s the whole story...

The problem

With Brexit rapidly approaching, the government has been putting in place a number of contingency plans in case the UK crashes out of the EU with no-deal.

One of the areas of concern is easing the pressure on Dover, the UK’s busiest port, where it is feared thousands of lorries may become stuck following last-minute uncertainty over customs and border checks, or greater bureaucracy at the UK/French border. 

The solution

In December, the government awarded contracts totalling £108m to three companies to lay on additional ferry crossings, to help anticipate the problem of moving goods across the Channel. 

One of these companies was Seaborne Freight, which planned to use its £13.8m share to operate freight ferries from Ramsgate to the Belgian port of Ostend, beginning with two ships in late March and increasing to four by the end of the summer.

The problem 

Well, the problem was quite big and quite immediate. Despite its name, Seaborne Freight did not own any ferries and had never operated a service.

Quite.

In a statement at the end of December, the company said it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate from early 2019 but had yet to implement them.

Inevitably, the Department for Transport and its boss, Chris Grayling, came in for quite a bit of stick. 

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Ed Davey said at the time: “That the government has reportedly signed a contract with a ferry company with no ferries pretty much sums up their farcical approach to the entire Brexit fiasco.”

The solution, mark 2

Grayling’s solution was to dig his heels in and stand by the decision, insisting it was an example of the government “supporting new business”.

Grayling told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme that Seaborne had been properly vetted before being chosen, after concerns were raised over its ability to fulfil the contract.

“We have looked very carefully at this business and have put in place a tight contract that makes sure they can deliver for us,” he said. 

The problem with the solution

Absolutely no one believed him.

Adding to the general incredulity surrounding the episode, on January  it was revealed Seaborne Freight had copied and pasted a key section of its website from a takeaway outlet.

Labour MPs mercilessly mocked Seaborne Freight after discovering the terms and conditions on its website include a section on “placing an order”, which advises visitors what to do “before agreeing to pay for any meal/order”.

The website also urges users to ensure they enter correct delivery details which are “detailed enough for the delivery driver to locate the address in adequate time”, warning “undelivered orders will be chargeable”.

The problem

By 8 January, calls for Grayling’s resignation were growing. Remember that all this came on the back of huge disruptions on the railways last summer, and drone chaos at Gatwick Airport over Christmas.

Adding to his woes, Conservative Thanet district councillor Beverly Martin said Ramsgate Port, from where Seaborne Freight was planning to operate, “cannot be ready” for Brexit on March 29.

The solution, mark 3

Grayling stood by his tried and tested “dig your heels in” strategy and stood firm.

Grayling then suggested the only reason people wanted him to step down was because of his attempts to modernise the railway industry.

In an interview with Parliament’s The House magazine, Grayling said the RMT Union were among those calling for him to be removed from his cabinet role.

“There are people like the RMT Union who have been trying to get me to resign for the last nine months,” he said.

“This is a trade union that regards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party as too right wing to affiliate to and wants to stand in the way of modernisation of the railways.”

The solution, mark 4

Seaborne Freight took matters into their own hands and embarked on a rapid recruitment drive in order to ensure they would indeed be ready.

Only they didn’t.

Nearly a full month after being awarded the contract, the company finally advertised for two roles, a stevedore and an operations assistant.

MPs immediately described the moves as “farcical” and “meaningless” given the lack of time to get ferry services up and running by exit day on March 29.

The problem

By now the entire things was a massive joke, its humour value dented only by the fact Brexit was rapidly approaching and everyone was getting a bit panicky.

The solution, mark 5

Abandoning his firmly dug-in heels, Grayling terminated Seaborne Freight’s contract on 9 February. 

A Whitehall source told HuffPost UK the government is now considering its options and “will pursue what’s in [the] taxpayer’s best interest”.

The current situation

MPs – including pro-EU Tories – have said Grayling should take responsibility for the situation and resign.

In the commons on Monday afternoon, Labour will present an urgent question on the saga.

Stay tuned for more The Thick Of It updates.