Commons pummelling leaves Failing Grayling seeing ships

John Crace
Chris Grayling answering questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: PA

Earlier in the day the prime minister had once again expressed her full confidence in Chris Grayling. Which left unanswered the question of why. Just how hopeless does the transport secretary have to be for Theresa May to confess that she might just have the slightest doubt about his abilities? Whatever kompromat Grayling holds over her must be devastating.

Grayling is a one-man disaster zone. A figure of such great incompetence is usually only found in cartoons. The only talent Grayling has ever displayed in any of his government jobs is for doing them badly. It’s no longer just me who calls him Failing Grayling. Almost everyone does. Including the rest of the cabinet. His reputation now precedes him even in France, where he has been banned from entering the port of Calais. They’ve got enough troubles of their own en France, merci beaucoup.

It’s now also clear that not even Grayling has confidence in Grayling. Long before he was called on to explain the latest saga in the ongoing embarrassment of Seaborne Freight, his cheek was wobbling uncontrollably with anxiety as he waited on the government frontbench. Soon he will be recognisable only as a Kafkaesque nervous tic.

“Um, er…” Failing Grayling began, his eyes darting around the chamber searching for someone, somewhere who might love him. Or if that was too much to ask, then someone who might take pity on him. Er, he had always made clear that Seaborne Freight was high risk, but he had wanted to show that the government was backing business by handing over a contract to a company that was effectively out of the ferry business. It was just unfortunate that everything had gone tits up when some other company called Arklow, which had said it might help out Seaborne, had done the due diligence his department had failed to do and pulled out of the deal completely.

As so often, Labour’s Andy McDonald was spoiled for choice in his reply. Being shadow transport secretary to Grayling is any MP’s dream job. All you have to do is stand up and talk in coherent sentences to be ahead of the game. McDonald duly obliged by asking whether proper procurement procedures had been followed, whether Arklow had signed a contract with Seaborne before the government had awarded the contract, and how much the whole fiasco had cost.

“We haven’t spent any money,” insisted Grayling. An answer that didn’t entirely square with a recently published National Audit Office report which concluded that the department had spent £800,000 on consultants and that due diligence had not been done on Seaborne. It can only be a matter of time before Failing Grayling finds himself back in the Commons explaining why he misled parliament.

A few Tory Brexiters gamely tried to defend the transport secretary. But the desperation in their questions merely highlighted the hopelessness of his self-inflicted predicament. Roger Gale got things off to a bad start by labouring under the impression that Seaborne was running an aviation service, so it was unreasonable to expect them to have any boats. He really needn’t have bothered.

It got worse. Robert Goodwill and Matthew Offord insisted it was totally unreasonable to expect Seaborne to have any ferries as most airlines didn’t own any planes and Uber didn’t own any taxis. The fact that they might have access to them – something beyond Seaborne’s imagination when it came to ferries – eluded them. It must be a mystery to both of them how anyone ever gets anywhere. Truly, Grayling acts as a stupidity magnet.

Jacob Rees-Mogg detected the sinister hand of Brussels in Grayling’s failings. Arklow had sneakily failed to sign a contract with Seaborne just to make a fool of the transport secretary. There was just one fault with this. Why would the Irish company bother to go out of its way to do something Grayling was more than capable of doing on his own? Something he went out of his way to prove by insisting that when the government had originally said it was planning for no deal, it had only pretended to plan for no deal as it hadn’t thought no deal was very likely. But when it had become clear that things were worse than they had thought, he had panicked by awarding a contract to Seaborne.

The rest of the session was just a punishment beating for Grayling, with Labour MPs asking for inconvenient details of costs and contractual arrangements. “I’m doing my best,” sobbed Grayling. “The minister is handling this as well as possible,” Kevin Brennan conceded. It was just that the bar was pathetically low and the country could do with a transport secretary with basic motor skills.

The SNP MP Drew Hendry tried to break the bad news to Grayling. There were no ships. There never had been any ships. And there weren’t going to be any ships

“I do see ships,” Grayling insisted. It’s just a shame they were ones that didn’t exist. The mystery of his incompetence had been solved. He had been out of his head on acid for years. The whole of Brexit had been one bad trip. Losers in the Sky with Diamonds.