Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray holds a placard asking "Brexit: is it worth it?" as a no-deal scenario looms ever larger, leading some observers to warn of chaos, not least regarding cross-Channel transport links

London (AFP) - Britain’s tortuous breakup with the European Union took a bizarre turn Monday after it emerged that London has awarded an emergency ferry services contract to a company without any ships.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is ramping up preparations to avert chaos should Britain split from the EU in March without an agreement on future trade ties.

May’s cabinet will meet next week for more “no-deal Brexit” planning in case the British parliament fails to approve a draft deal London and Brussels have reached after nearly two years of talks.

The plan is deeply unpopular in London and May was forced to abort a December debate about the arrangement after admitting it faced heavy defeat.

A new vote in the House of Commons is scheduled for the week starting on January 14.

But the cabinet’s bid to show it was ready for anything was set back when the BBC discovered the ferry contract awarded to a firm without any actual vessels in place.

Britain reached three commercial agreements to move cargo should the main cross-Channel sea route grind to a halt after Brexit takes place on March 29.

Two of them went to established companies in Denmark and France.

The smallest of the three was won by Seaborne Freight – a London-based firm that only intends to start providing ferry services next year.

Britain’s transport department did not explain why Seaborne was handed the £13.8 million ($17.7 million, 15.4-million euro) deal.

“This contract was awarded in the full knowledge that Seaborne Freight is a new shipping provider, and that the extra capacity and vessels would be provided as part of its first services,” the ministry said in a statement released to AFP.

“As with all contracts, we carefully vetted the company’s commercial, technical and financial position in detail before making the award.”

But a local councillor said it seemed unlikely that Seaborne could have everything set up in time.

“Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in their entire history and give them £14 million?” councillor Paul Messenger asked.

“I don’t understand the logic of that.”

- ‘Reeks’ -

May’s critics in the Labour main opposition party also pounced.

“Nothing could sum Brexit up better than the utter stench of this latest (transport department) mess. Reeks,” said Labour MP Neil Coyle.

The BBC said the narrow berths at Ramsgate port in southeast England made them unsuitable for most existing commercial ships.

The port has not been used commercially since 2013.

Seaborne said in a statement that it has spent two years working on plans to get Ramsgate up and running by early 2019.

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

Seaborne chief executive Ben Sharp told the BBC he planned to start operations with two ships before “very quickly” expanding that number to four.

The ferries are due to link up Britain with Belgium.