The health secretary has defended former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott amid concerns about his attitudes towards women and homosexuality, declaring: “Well, he’s also an expert in trade.”
Matt Hancock told Sky News that Mr Abbott has a “huge” amount of expertise on the subject, amid reports the ex-Australian leader is being lined up to be joint president of Britain’s relaunched Board of Trade.
News of Mr Abbott’s potential role has sparked criticism in light of his views on women and homosexuality.
He has reportedly previously said men are better suited for leadership roles than women, described abortion as the “easy way out”, opposed same-sex marriage and said he feels a “bit threatened by homosexuality”.
Opponents have also criticised Mr Abbott for telling an event in London that coronavirus restrictions should be lifted so that people can make their own decisions about the risks they are willing to run.
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry has described the former PM as a “Trump-worshipping misogynist”.
Mr Abbott has denied accusations of misogyny.
Asked whether he had ever suggested that men may be “by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command”, Mr Abbott told MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday: “I am not sure I ever did say that.”
Asked about Mr Abbott’s possible appointment, Mr Hancock told the Kay Burley programme: “As far as I understand it, the proposal is that Mr Abbott supports the UK on trade policy, which is an area in which he has got a huge area of expertise.
“I bow to nobody in my support for everybody to love who they love, whoever that is.
“But we need to have the best experts in the world working in their field and as the former prime minister of Australia, he has a huge amount of experience.”
Asked whether he feels that way even if Mr Abbott is, in Burley’s words, a “homophobic misogynist”, the health secretary said: “I don’t think that’s true.”
Pressed again about the former leader’s views, Mr Hancock replied: “Well, he’s also an expert in trade.”
He added: “What I’m saying is we need experts in different areas and somebody who is the former prime minister of Australia is obviously an enormous expert in the field of trade.
“It doesn’t change my views.”
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Challenged by Labour MP Ruth Cadbury in the Commons about the potential appointment, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the opposition would “rather virtue signal and indulge in tokenism than take real action to improve the lives of women”.
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves told Kay Burley: “I don’t think he should be doing that job. I think your description of him as a misogynistic homophobe is an accurate one.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the same programme that Mr Abbott was “not the kind of person who should be a trade envoy for the UK”.
“If I had anything to do with that decision he wouldn’t be a trade envoy for the United Kingdom,” she said.
Mr Abbott said on Wednesday that he has “had some discussions with members of the British government and I’m more than happy to help” – but nothing was official just yet.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman told journalists that “no decisions about the Board of Trade have been made”.