London: The British government has defied a growing backlash over plans to appoint Tony Abbott as a trade adviser by formally approving the former Australian prime minister’s new position.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have been told Abbott’s appointment to the United Kingdom’s Board of Trade will be announced on Friday afternoon, local time.
Abbott will be one of a number of new advisers on the board, which is being revamped as Britain negotiates a raft of new global trade deals following its departure from the European Union.
The appointment has set off a major political dispute in Westminster, with cabinet ministers forced to defend claims that the former Liberal Party leader was a “homophobe and misogynist”.
Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and his sister, Christine Forster, defended the former prime minister on Friday, rubbishing claims from journalists and Labour MPs that his previous statements disqualified him from the trade position.
Downing Street made its first official comment on the matter on Thursday, pointing out that no decisions had been made about Abbott’s appointment. That is the private line the government has held since it was first reported that Abbott would be advising the British on trade.
However, the appointment has now been approved and the government hopes confirmation of the position will end the damaging speculation.
Actor Sir Ian McKellen led fresh calls on Friday for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reconsider appointing Abbott to the revamped trade board because of the former prime minister’s previous statements on abortion, climate change, gay people and women.
McKellen, who played Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s remake of the hit trilogy The Lord of the Rings, released an open letter calling on Britain’s arts community to support and sign.
The letter has so far been signed a string of prominent gay and lesbian figures in Britain, including Lord Cashman and Lisa Power, fellow founders of the Stonewall LGBT rights charity, and screenwriter Russell T. Davies who revived Doctor Who and wrote Queer as Folk.
“As committed equality and environmental activists, we the undersigned urge the government to reconsider its proposed appointment of Tony Abbott as a trade envoy to the UK Board of Trade,” the letter says.
The list of those who have signed already is notable as it includes figures who rarely speak out on politics when it does not relate to their particular sector, including Ian Green from the Terrence Higgins Trust, Britain’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.
It also includes a Tory peer, Lord Hayward, who has become the second Conservative to voice disquiet about the appointment.
Australian actor David Wenham, who co-starred with McKellen in The Lord of the Rings, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, “Britain must feel very despondent if their government deems that there is no one in Britain capable of representing them re trade. And then the insult of choosing Tony Abbott, noted primarily for trading in misogyny and homophobia.”
Abbott wrapped up his 10-day trip to Europe on Friday and was on his way back to Australia where he said he would go into hotel quarantine.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described Abbott’s new role as a “good hire” by Johnson’s government.
“He knows a lot about trade and he did a lot of great work for Australia on trade when it came to the China free trade agreement and Japan and Korea,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Friday.
“He set Australia up very well and the fact that we now have a current account surplus, that we’ve had trade surpluses now for record periods of time, I think speaks very well to his trade credentials so I wish Tony well.”
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.