Boris Johnson defends Tony Abbott, despite growing calls not to hire ex-Australian PM for Brexit role

Sir Ian McKellen among prominent LGBT+ campaigners who say controversial figure ‘not fit’ to represent Britain

Adam Forrest
Friday 04 September 2020 15:17
Grant Shapps says he would need to 'check record' of Tony Abbott's past comments before going for drink with him

Boris Johnson has defended his prospective trade envoy Tony Abbott — despite prominent LGBT+ campaigners signing an open letter urging the government not to hand him a role on the UK’s new Board of Trade.

Mr Johnson said the former Australian prime minister was a “guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia”.

Asked about some of Mr Abbott’s previous remarks and accusations he is a sexist, homophobic and a misogynist, Mr Johnson said: “There’s going to be an announcement I think in due course about the composition of the Board of Trade.

“I don’t, obviously don’t agree with those sentiments at all, but then I don’t agree with everyone who serves the government in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country.”

He added: “What I would say about Tony Abbott is this is a guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal democratic nation of Australia. It’s an amazing country, it’s a freedom-loving country, it’s a liberal country. There you go, I think that speaks for itself.”

Dozens of prominent figures — including Sir Ian McKellen and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies — have signed an open letter asking the government to think again on the “proposed” idea of giving Mr Abbott a key role.

The letter points out that he “vigorously campaigned” against same-sex marriage during Australia’s referendum in 2017, and has previously said he felt “a bit threatened” by homosexuality.

It stated: “This man is not fit to be representing the UK as our trade envoy.”

It concluded: “If the government is truly committed to an outward-looking future for Britain, to tackling climate change and to creating an equal society for all, it should reconsider its proposed appointment.”

Separately, LGBT+ charity Stonewall also made clear its opposition to the potential appointment of Mr Abbott, who confirmed earlier this week he was in “discussions” with the government over a trade role.

Sir Ian McKellen was among celebrities and campaigners to sign letter

Eloise Stonborough, head of policy and research, said: “The appointment of an individual with known homophobic and misogynist views risks undermining the government’s commitment to ‘defend and promote the rights of LGBT people globally’.”

However, the under-fire former prime minister has been defended by his sister Christine Forster, who said he would make an “outstanding” UK trade envoy.

In a statement posted to Twitter, she wrote: “It is nothing short of dishonesty for commentators and politicians who do not know Tony to label him a ‘homophobe and a misogynist’ for the purposes of scoring cheap political points.

“As a woman who has always been part of his life and who came out to him as gay in my early 40s, I know incontrovertibly that Tony is neither of those things.”

Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Wes Streeting accused Matt Hancock of hypocrisy after the health secretary defended Mr Abbott’s potential appointment and tweeted about the “fantastic” new LGBT-inclusive relationships and sex education introduced in schools.

Mr Bryant responded: “So why on earth would you countenance Tony Abbott as a trade envoy?”

Mr Streeting tweeted: “Matt, We know you’re a social liberal with a decent voting record on LGBT equality. That’s why your defence of Tony Abbott was even more nauseating.”

Earlier on Monday, transport secretary Grant Shapps said he would only have a drink with Mr Abbott after he had “checked the record” and assess some of the Australian politician’s previous remarks.

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