Tony Abbott: Boris Johnson stands by ex-Australian PM because he can’t afford another U-turn | UK News

For several days the question has caused Cabinet ministers to squirm awkwardly.

Was Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister, suitable to represent the UK on the Board of Trade?

His critics, which include another former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard; numerous prominent LGBT+ figures; the conservative chair of the equalities select committee and almost every UK opposition politician, say his past comments show him to be a misogynist, a homophobe and a climate change sceptic.

The question of whether he should be the face of the UK’s efforts to forge post-Brexit trade ties was one that no senior government figure appeared to have a good answer to.

A Downing Street spokesman said simply, “no decision has been taken”.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said she was not going to “spend my time talking about comments other people have made in the past”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he did not believe the criticisms were true, and simply repeated the retort that Mr Abbott was “an expert in trade”.

But when the prime minister himself was asked about the appointment just hours before it was formally confirmed, there was very little sign of awkwardness.

Indeed it was clear Boris Johnson had made up his mind that he could weather the inevitable criticisms that would follow.

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He argued he did not need to agree with the “sentiments” of every member of every government board, and that if a “freedom-loving” and “liberal” country like Australia had elected Mr Abbott leader “that speaks for itself”.

Why has the prime minister chosen to double down on this issue?

One reason might be a desire not to be accused of lacking backbone by the likes of Nigel Farage and other hardline Brexiteers who had welcomed the first reports of the appointment. Mr Johnson sees more risk to his electoral base emanating from that side of the political spectrum than the other.

Another might be the fact the prime minister himself has previously been accused of racism and homophobia in relation to past comments in newspaper columns and elsewhere. These have always been criticisms he has shrugged off, so it may not be surprising he has done so in this case too.

But perhaps the immediate political context is more important. The central charge being levelled at the government by the opposition at the moment is incompetence, characterised by repeated U-turns.

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Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer made it a theme at this week’s PMQs – saying the prime minister was lurching from crisis to crisis and needed to get a grip.

Whatever private misgivings there may be in his cabinet and party about the suitability of Mr Abbott given the outcry, Mr Johnson may well have concluded that he cannot afford another U-turn.

That calculation rests on this being a storm that will blow over, in a way that the algorithm unfairness of the exam grades saga would not. That might be the case, but don’t expect the government’s critics to let that happen anytime soon.

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