Brexiteers cheer reports British PM to tap former Australian PM Tony Abbott for trade role

Restoring trust and rebuilding markets within the 54 Commonwealth nations will be vital as a post-Brexit Britain forges out on its own, and the recruitment of Abbott signals the importance the Johnson government attaches to the effort. 

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Tony Abbott
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Sydney, Australia, June 11, 2020
(Don Arnold/WireImage)
Updated: August 30, 2020 - 7:16am

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British Brexiteers and their pro-Trump allies in the U.S. are applauding the news, widely reported last week in the British media (although still not officially confirmed) that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hire former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as a senior adviser on trade.

An experienced and respected international statesman, Abbott is well placed to negotiate deals with leaders around the world. He also has deep inside knowledge of The Commonwealth — the unique association of 54 nations that emerged out of the former British empire, and is now home to 2.4 billion people.

One condition for the U.K.'s entrance into the European Economic Community in 1973 was that it abandon long-held trade ties with the Commonwealth countries, a move that caused them great economic hardships and which they considered a betrayal

Restoring trust and rebuilding those markets will be vital as a post-Brexit Britain forges out on its own, and the recruitment of Abbott signals the importance the Johnson government attaches to the effort. 

Abbott was born in the U.K. and has been an outspoken supporter of Brexit. In 2018, he gave a rousing address at the the Oxford Union, calling for the government to honor the 2016 referendum or face "defeat on an epic scale hardly matched since the Norman invasion." 

"This is the country that has seen off the Spanish Armada, the French emperor and the German Kaiser, won against Louis XIV, against Napoleon, against William II, and then against Hitler," Abbott reminded the debating society, according to the Daily Express. "This country did not need Europe — it saved Europe. No country on earth should be more capable than Britain of standing on its own two feet."

It is now more than four years since the historic referendum to leave the European Union, yet Britain still remains subject to its laws. The last two Tory prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May, were against leaving, and Parliament as a whole tried numerous times to delay and even cancel Brexit.

The large parliamentary majority that Johnson’s government now enjoys is due mainly to the pledge he made to get Brexit done "no ifs, no buts, no maybes." His big win was not an endorsement of his party's policies or record — and he knows it. 

Many commentators draw parallels between President Trump's 2016 election and the U.K.'s EU independence vote, which happened a few months earlier, but there was a big difference. 

Brexit was a one-off referendum, not a general election. It didn't lead to a philosophical change in the governance of the U.K., which ever since Margaret Thatcher's time has drifted leftwards. 

The U.K. is still ruled by the party of Cameron and May, who both opposed leaving the EU. Nigel Farage may have personified the Brexit movement, but he did not become prime minister. Johnson, who eventually did, was a late convert to Brexit, and many of those who voted to leave view him as an opportunist, so the Abbott appointment will help shore up the PM's Brexit credentials among the skeptics.

Farage, who still leads the Brexit Party, tweeted his full support: "Tony Abbott is a talented and deeply principled man with a great commitment to Brexit. This is a good appointment."

But Labour MP and Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry offered this scathing reaction to the Abbott news, according to The Guardian:

"I just find this appointment absolutely staggering. On a personal level, I am disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas.

"And on a professional level, this is someone whose only experience of trade agreements was turning up to sign the treaties [former Australian Trade Minister] Andrew Robb negotiated for him."

Currently, the U.K. is negotiating with the EU to reach a post-Brexit trade deal, but so far little progress has been made, with the nation scheduled to fully exit the EU on Dec. 31, 2020, when this transition period ends. If no agreement has been reached by then, the U.K. will have to trade using World Trade Organization (WTO) tariffs. That scenario has caused concern to many, including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).  

Abbot is more enthusiastic. "Let me reassure anyone in Britain anxious about the prospect of no deal that Australia does one hundred billion dollars' worth of trade with the EU every single year, on this very basis," he wrote last year.

The most vital trade deal of all will be with America, and on that score Johnson, has many critics. 

Brexiteers were bewildered when, three days before the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31 of this year, Johnson consented to using the Chinese tech giant Huawei as a major supplier in the development of his nation's 5G network. The planned deal angered the Trump administration and other members of the "five-eyes" intelligence-sharing nations, possibly delaying and even jeopardizing, the U.S.-U.K. trade deal. Johnson's eventual China rethink and U-turn in July was welcomed in the White House.

But time to conclude the U.S. deal may be running out even faster than the EU one. Would a Joe Biden administration prioritize the U.K. if it means upsetting the larger EU trading block? 

His former boss, Barack Obama, gave a clue back in 2016 when he threatened Brits that if they voted for Brexit, "The U.K. is going to be at the back of the queue" for a U.S trade deal.

For those within the Conservative party and Parliament who still hope to remain in the EU, a Biden victory in November would be a very welcome eleventh-hour development. As former Conservative Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons William Hague averred last week in an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph, a Biden win "would be good for Britain."