Tony Abbott becomes latest shot fired in the post-Brexit culture war

Former Australian PM who may be set for a UK trade role is either a gaffe-prone straight talker - or a climate change-denying misogynist

Tony Abbott
Abbott, who was PM of Australia between 2013 and 2015, was a vocal supporter of Brexit Credit: Stefan Postles/Getty Images AsiaPac

If Tony Abbott is appointed joint president of the Board of Trade, it would make “about as much sense as Australia asking Gavin Williamson to run its education system”.

That’s according to Mike Rann, who was Australian high commissioner to the UK when Abbott was prime minister between 2013 and 2015. 

The Department for International Trade (DIT) batted away speculation linking Abbott to the role, which The Sun claims he would share with Trade Secretary Liz Truss. 

The Department says no decision has been made on the appointment, but the Sydney Morning Herald reports that he had breakfast with Truss in London on Wednesday after being granted an exemption from the Australian government’s international travel ban to leave the country.

Prime minister Scott Morrison - from the Liberal party like Abbott - appeared to confirm the story, telling ABC News: “Well done Boris! Good hire!” Other sources, however, say Abbott would be no more than an adviser.

If he does end up with a job, London-born Abbott’s mooted arrival is the latest shot fired in the post-Brexit culture war. 

Against a backdrop of  accusations that the Government has a “woman problem”, Abbott is an ostensibly odd choice as a sidekick to Truss - also minister for women and equalities and a former environment secretary - given his views on gender and climate change.

A trained priest, Abbott once urged support for a female Liberal party candidate because she had "a bit of sex appeal", was accused of sexism by Julia Gillard in 2012 after a string of comments he made about the then prime minister being childless and unmarried, and, when he took over from Gillard, appointed himself as women’s minister.

He has referred to the “so-called settled science” on climate change, an upgrade from his view of it as “absolutely crap” just over a decade ago, and in a speech in London credited global warming with “probably doing good”.

Nonetheless, Abbott can be relied upon to fly the flag for Brexit, of which he has been a vocal champion. After Parliament rejected Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal plan last year, Abbott tweeted: "What’s wrong with no deal? Australia does $100bn a year in trade with the EU without a deal.” 

That stirred Dmitry Grozoubinski, former Australian trade negotiator at the World Trade Organization during the Abbott government, to describe him as “embarrassing”. There can be little doubt No. 10 is revelling in trade experts’ outrage at rumours of the appointment today. Many were already miffed at being purged from the Government's trade advisory committees.

Tony Abbott goes jogging in Townsville in 2013 Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images AsiaPac

Emily Thornberry, the shadow trade secretary, said she was “disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas”.

“He was ousted by his own colleagues after two years in power, and kicked out of Australian politics by his own constituents just last year," she added. "They are the people who know him best, and they wanted rid of him – yet here we are, hiring him to negotiate our trade deals around the world. If it wasn’t so downright humiliating, it would be almost hilarious.”

The Board has existed in various guises since the early 17th century when it was established to advise on matters colonial, under its formal title “The Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations”.

Whether as an adviser or co-president, Abbott would be unlikely to be directly involved with negotiating trade deals. His role may be more ambassadorial, promoting “Global Britain” internationally, or perhaps more regionally focused, chairing quarterly meetings of the Board of Trade’s advisers.

However, since its relaunch in 2017, the Board has met only seven times and not since May last year, in locations around the UK, most recently Belfast.

The DIT’s in-tray is certainly full. Talks with Canada are expected to start imminently, a deal with Japan – at least in principle – is Truss’s goal by the end of the month, and a second round of talks with Australia will start next month, while negotiations with the US and New Zealand rumble on.

Regardless of whether Abbott can help to push the deals over the line, the Government stirring rumours about his appointment is more likely for the benefit of onlookers at home.