The transport secretary has said he would have a drink with Tony Abbott only after he had “checked the record” over some of the former prime minister of Australia’s controversial comments.
Grant Shapps said if he were to be invited to have a drink with Mr Abbott, he would “have to” check the former Australian leader’s history of controversial remarks, which includes his attitude towards women and homosexuality.
Speaking to Sky News’ Kay Burley, Mr Shapps discussed reports the government has been considering giving Mr Abbott a key role in forging post-Brexit trade deals for the UK.
It comes after health secretary Matt Hancock defended the idea, telling Ms Burley on Thursday that Mr Abbott has a “huge amount of experience” in trade. He said he did not think it was true that Mr Abbott was “a homophobic misogynist”.
On Friday, Mr Shapps stressed that no senior trade role had been handed to Mr Abbott amid pressure to drop the proposals.
He said: “I hate to bring us back to reality but he hasn’t been appointed to anything and as far as I know, there haven’t been any appointments made.
“There are lots of people with whom their comments I vehemently disagree but I’m not defending people who are not actually carrying out any role for the British government.”
Downing Street has insisted no decisions have been made, but Mr Abbott is reportedly in talks to become joint president of the relaunched Board of Trade.
Critics have pointed out the foreign politician’s scepticism over climate change and belief that coronavirus restrictions should be done away with. He also caused controversy during a Policy Exchange think tank speech in London this week in which he suggested families should be able to consider allowing elderly relatives with Covid-19 to die by letting “nature take its course”.
Mr Abbott was also accused of misogyny after he questioned whether men having more power than women was necessarily a “bad thing” and has been labelled a homophobe by some groups after he campaigned strongly against same-sex marriage.
Famous LGBT+ figures, including Sir Ian McKellen and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies, have reportedly signed an open letter together with environmental activists to criticise Mr Abbott’s record and urge the British government to reconsider appointing him.
The letter, reported by ITV News, said: “This is a man who described abortion as ‘the easy way out’ and suggested that men may be ‘by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command’.”
Labour has also written to the government and said it would be “completely unacceptable” to appoint Mr Abbott because of his “offensive and outdated” views. Leader Keir Starmer said on Thursday that he has “real concerns” about the former prime minister and would not hire him.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also weighed in and said Mr Abbott’s views on the coronavirus pandemic are “deeply offensive and wrong” and he is not fit to be a trade envoy.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson insisted on Thursday that “no decision” on the trade board’s make-up had been made and declined to comment on “political debate” surrounding Mr Abbott.
Additional reporting by PA