A major test of turning a disused airport into a lorry park after Brexit was today branded a "farce" as just 89 trucks turned up.

The taxpayer-funded convoy costing well over £50,000 gathered at sunrise at Manston Airport, Kent, and set off for the Port of Dover to test road capacity for HGVs if there is no deal on March 29.

But campaigners mocked the number of trucks trooping down the A256 - which included two international removal trucks and a Thanet Council bin lorry.

The government confirmed 89 vehicles attended, despite a letter last week appealing for "100 to 150" to take part.

The first batch also left at 8.13am, despite an 8am predicted set-off time and warnings that even a momentary delay at ports could cause chaos on Kent's roads.

A government source insisted: "The dropout was expected and we're satisfied with the number taking part in the test today."

But anti-Brexit Labour MP Stephen Doughty said: "This is yet more extraordinary incompetence from this shambolic government.

The taxpayer-funded convoy gathered at sunrise at Manston Airport, Kent

"Ferries from phantom companies. Billions being poured down the drain. And now they can’t even count lorries.

"No wonder the public are rapidly losing any confidence in them to deliver Brexit and are demanding a final say. This chaos is not what anyone voted for."

Astonished Twitter users mocked the total saying "we can't even organise a good queue anymore" and "the Tories can't even organise a traffic jam".

Dover is said to handle around 10,000 lorries a day at busy times.

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, of the anti-Brexit Best For Britain campaign, said: "This is a taxpayer funded farce.

"No deal doesn't need to be a real prospect but the government are just throwing money down the drain for effect.

"The idea that creating a fake traffic jam will show the EU we are ready for no deal is just plain stupid."

The government confirmed 89 vehicles attended, despite a letter last week appealing for "100 to 150" to take part

The trial, called Operation Brock, is testing out the site as a mass HGV holding bay to ease congestion on roads to Channel ports.

A letter from the Department for Transport and Kent County Council last week said the government "seeks the participation of 100-150 hauliers".

But only 89 took part and were paid £550 per driver, resulting in estimated total driver fees of £48,950. 

It is likely that other costs such as signage, administration and staff to co-ordinate the exercise will have taken the total bill well over £50,000.

One driver tweeted that he had his "feet up drinking coffee" while waiting to set off.

The first batch also left at 8.13am, despite an 8am predicted set-off time

The latest Brexit drama came on a busy day as MPs returned to Parliament ahead of a vote on Theresa May's deal - due next Tuesday 15 January.

The vote was delayed by a month, yet the deal still faces defeat due to a 'backstop' clause which could trap the UK under EU customs rules after 2020.

In other developments:

  • Reports suggest the PM will hold a meeting today to consider scrapping MPs' February holiday to pass Brexit laws on time

  • Boris Johnson claimed No Deal Brexit is what the UK voted for - despite saying himself in 2016 that Britain would enjoy free trade and single market access

  • Labour's Barry Gardiner hinted his party could offer a public referendum on its own version of Brexit - after renegotiating with the EU
MPs are returning to Parliament ahead of a vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal - due next Tuesday 15 January
Hauliers were paid their usual rate to take part in the taxpayer-funded exercise

Lorries from regional and national haulage companies - with Eddie Stobart leading the pack - started to arrive at the airfield from around 7am on Monday to form a queue along the runway.

The drivers congregated in a large group before being directed by officials from the Department for Transport (DfT), Kent County Council and police officers.

The first practice run began in rush-hour shortly after 8am, with four convoys leaving at intervals between 8.13am and 8.39am.

The lorries were testing the capacity of the road between Manston and Dover

The trial was arranged with the help of the Road Haulage Association, whose policy director warned last year such plans "may be too little, too late".

Duncan Buchanan of the RHA told the BBC last week: "These sort of practical, pragmatic tests need to be done - it just shouldn't be done as late as this.

"It should have taken place nine months ago."

The 20-mile journey takes around half an hour depending on traffic.

The 20-mile journey takes around half an hour depending on traffic

A second test was expected to take place at 11am.

A DfT spokeswoman said: “We do not want or expect a no deal scenario and continue to work hard to deliver a deal with the EU.

"However, it is the duty of a responsible Government to continue to prepare for all eventualities and contingencies, including a possible no deal.

“Any lessons learned from today and further mitigation measures will be considered carefully to ensure Operation Brock is fully functional if needed.”

Prime Minister Theresa May's official spokesman said: “We are satisfied with the number of HVGs that took part .

“Enough took part to provide us with a strong sample to help us understand the effect of potential traffic on this route.
“The point of this exercise was to gather information. It has provided that information.

“The purpose of it was to look at the times that it takes to get to various points on this stage and the information that we got today is sufficient to do that.”