Work still to do on Brexit deal after PM’s Christmas talks, says Downing Street

Theresa May has spoken with European leaders over Christmas but “there is still more work to do” just nine days before her key Brexit deal returns to the Commons for a key vote that will shape the UK’s future.

MPs are due to debate the Withdrawal Agreement hammered out with Brussels on January 9 before a meaningful vote the following week.

Having been forced to pull the vote in December in the face of almost certain failure, Mrs May needs something fresh to offer critics in the Tory ranks if it is to pass this time.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said on Monday that while discussions between the UK and EU had continued she was still working on getting the “legal and political assurances” required.

She said the PM had “been in contact with European leaders and that will continue in the lead up to the vote”.

The spokeswoman added: “Her focus is certainly on getting the assurances that MPs want ahead of that vote taking place.

“There is still work to do and talks will continue.”

It came as questions were asked about the Government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit after it emerged a £13.8 million contract to run extra ferries was handed to a company with no ships and which has not previously operated a service.

Seaborne Freight was one of three companies awarded contracts totalling £108 million last week to lay on additional crossings to ease the pressure on Dover when Britain pulls out of the EU.

The company aims 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.

A Conservative county councillor for the Kent port town said he did not believe it would be possible to set up a new service from Ramsgate by the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.

Councillor Paul Messenger questioned whether the Government had carried out sufficient checks on the firm, telling the BBC: “It has no ships and no trading history so how can due diligence be done?

“Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in their entire history and give them £14 million? I don’t understand the logic of that.”

Seaborne was established two years ago and has been in negotiations about running freight ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend but no services are currently running.

Narrow berths in the port mean there are few suitable commercial vessels available.

In a statement, the company said it had been working since 2017 on plans to reintroduce ferry sailings from Ramsgate from early 2019.

The business has been “financed by the shareholders” during a development phase involving “locating suitable vessels, making arrangements with the ports of Ostend and Ramsgate, building the infrastructure – such as bunkering – as well as crewing the ferries once they start operating”.

It added: “It was intended to start the service in mid-February but this has now been delayed until late March for operational reasons.

“This coincides with the Department for Transport’s Freight Capacity Purchase Agreement with Seaborne, which is part of their preparations to increase ferry capacity in the unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit.”

Remain-backing Labour MP Neil Coyle said: “Nothing could sum Brexit up better than the utter stench of this latest Grayling mess. Reeks.”

Ramsgate has not had a cross-Channel service since 2013, when operators TransEuropa collapsed.

The Downing Street spokeswoman said: “As with all contracts DfT carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position before making the award.”

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