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Mr Abbott’s planned appointment was first leaked last week and sparked anger among campaigners. Opposition MPs and gay rights campaigners expressed fury that the outspoken politician, infamous for making politically incorrect remarks, was in line for a job on Whitehall’s Board of Trade to promote post-Brexit commerce around the world.
The Australian has been accused by critics of being homophobic and a misogynist.
But the Prime Minister defended Mr Abbott this morning during an official visit to the West Midlands.
Brushing aside Mr Abbott’s past controversial outbursts, the Prime Minister added: “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. And I can’t be expected to do so.
“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.”
Equality and climate change activists including the veteran actor Sir Ian McKellen and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies signed an open letter yesterday pressing the Government not to appoint Mr Abbott to the trade role.
“We the undersigned urge the Government not to engage the man who described himself as ‘threatened by homosexuality’, and vigorously campaigned against the ultimately successful referendum in Australia to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“This is a man who has suggested that climate change is ‘probably doing good’, and who downplayed the link between extreme weather and bushfires at the height of this year’s Australian bushfire crisis,” the letter organised by the campaign group Shine said.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights charity Stonewall also expressed concern about the potential appointment of Tony Abbott as a UK trade envoy.
Eloise Stonborough, head of policy and research at the charity, said: “We are profoundly concerned by the potential impact of Abbott’s appointment.
“The UK has long been a world leader in LGBT rights but the 2020 ILGA-Europe rankings show the UK slipping to ninth place among European countries, from first place in 2015.
“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’.”
Former Conservative MEP and life-long Brexiteer Daniel Hannan, as well as the Lord Mayor of the City of London, William Russell, have also been hired as advisers to the Board of Trade.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the appointees would help ensure the UK has a “meaningful role in reshaping global trading rules”.
She said: “The new Board of Trade will play an important role in helping Britain make the case for free and fair trade across the UK and around the world.
“At a time of increased protectionism and global insecurity, it’s vital that the UK is a strong voice for open markets and that we play a meaningful role in reshaping global trading rules alongside like-minded countries.
“The new Board will help us do that, bringing together a diverse group of people who share Britain’s belief in free enterprise, democracy, and high standards and rules-based trade.”
More to follow…
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