The government, worried about cross-Channel freight after Brexit, signed up a ferry company which didn't actually own ships / © AFP
Weeks of public sniggering and indignation culminated Saturday when the British government cancelled a ferry contract it had awarded to a firm with no ships.
The island nation's breakup with the European Union took an odd turn in December when it handed the unheralded Seaborne Freight company the £13.8-million ($17.9 million, 15.6-million-euro) deal.
It was meant to make sure that cross-Channel trade with its closest trading partners did not grind to a halt if Britain ended up leaving on March 29 without new arrangements in place.
Fears of the dreaded "no-deal Brexit" are rising as the clock nears the hour when the United Kingdom ends its 46 years involvement in the European project.
The agreement London and Brussels sealed in December is currently stuck in the UK parliament.
Many lawmakers oppose it and Prime Minister Theresa May's efforts to get sweeteners from the EU that could help push it over the line are being rebuffed.
Chris Grayling is facing calls to step down but, on the upside, the ferry episode provided weeks of amusement as Britain prepares for Brexit / © AFP
The Seaborne Freight contract was the smallest of three emergency ferry deals transport secretary Chris Grayling quietly approved over the Christmas break.
But it quickly became the most famous -- or perhaps infamous -- when reporters discovered that Seaborne Freight was a startup that had never actually been involved in this line of work.
It had no ships and planned to operate from a port not suited for the types of large vessels needed to move stacks of loaded containers across the sea.
Grayling's ministry said Saturday that its decision to rip up the deal came after an Irish firm that emerged as a possible supplier of ships for Seaborne Freight changed its mind.
"Following the decision of Seaborne Freight's backer, Arklow Shipping, to step back from the deal, it became clear Seaborne would not reach its contractual requirements with the government," the transport ministry said.
"We have therefore decided to terminate our agreement."
It also stressed that no taxpayer money had been spent.
- 'He has to go' -
Seaborne Freight has been a source of ridicule and amusement throughout the bleak British winter weeks.
Social media comment erupted after someone noticed that parts of its "terms and conditions" appeared to have been copy-pasted from a food delivery store.
Grayling's ministry explained that the section had been put there in error.
It was soon removed -- but the damage had been done.
"Seaborne Freight. No ships, no trading history and website T&Cs copied and pasted from a takeaway delivery site," opposition Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson tweeted at the time.
Labour's political assault on Grayling continue on Saturday with calls for him to resign or be sacked.
"Whilst Theresa May needs the few friends she has right now, we cannot have this incompetent transport secretary carry on heaping humiliation after humiliation on our country," Labour transport pointman Andy McDonald said.
"He has to go."
The Telegraph newspaper said the Irish shipping company stepped in two weeks ago but abruptly withdrew Friday.
There has been no official explanation for its change of heart.
But Brexit backing MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said gravely that "one has to hope the Irish government has not lent on or put any pressure on Arklow to persuade it to pull out".
"That would be a very unfriendly act of a neighbour to obstruct no deal preparations," he said.