Inside Story

Captain Abbott’s pick

Britain’s man-gets-job frenzy was less about Tony Abbott than it seemed

David Hayes 2 October 2020 3061 words

An eternal present: Tony Abbott being driven away after speaking at a Policy Exchange event in London on 1 September 2020. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

A great national drama takes its ingredients from a common repertoire. A big cause. Worthy protagonists. A strong narrative arc. Gripping episodes. Intriguing tributaries. A public engrossed. Affecting rhetoric. Defining phrases and images. Moments of humour, poignancy and surprise. A theatrical resolution. A genuine sense of catharsis. A stock of binding memories. And a media knocked out of its socks by the sheer thrill of it all.

Margaret Thatcher’s epic fall had the lot. The vertiginous week that followed Diana’s death came close. Since that 1990s peak, the pictures have got small. Brexit, Scotland, wars, elections: all have dipped well below the decade’s high bar (though the first two are having another go in extra time). Between the craving for release and the means to satisfy it there now lies an abyss, whose hallmark is the political–media spasm, or PMS. Facilitated by classical politics’ and canonical media’s submission to social media, the PMS is defined here as an unhinged, self-cannibalising public furore that debases whatever is ostensibly at issue. Not just the rotten fruit of this millennial declension, the PMS is its very avatar — as is exhibited, with fitting bathos, by Tony Abbott’s starring role in a recent production.

More dirt bucket than welcome mat, the instant local reaction to a Sun report on 25 August trumpeting the pick of “our wizard of Oz” for an undefined role promoting London’s post-Brexit trade was also impressively viperous. The ousted member for Warringah was described as a “failed Australian prime minister” (passim), “right-wing Australian anglophile” and “antipodean mercenary”; a “man of primitive opinions” and “one of the most notorious attack dingoes of Aussie politics”; “a has-been from the other side of the world of whom we know little and care less” yet also a “travelling player on the right-wing thinktank circuit” and one of a “clown parade of other fruit loops”; an “unreconstructed example of Australian chauvinist manhood”; a “walking dinosaur… defective, morally bankrupt, intellectually inadequate”; and a “strange” and “unnecessary” choice because of his antediluvian views on climate change, same-sex marriage and labour rights, and his “political gunslinging,” “inability to command loyalty” and “directionless leadership.”

Haughtiest of all, naturally from a Guardian star columnist, was Abbott’s depiction as an oddball “from the remaindered bin in Australia” who “might see his role pushing British exports as an escalating scale of rugby club dares,” and the move itself “like learning that Theresa May had accepted a part on Neighbours, possibly as some kind of Mrs Mangel reboot.” Abbott, congeniality itself in a Zoom chat with the House of Commons foreign affairs committee three days later, told a bumptious Labour MP, “I do not normally read the Guardian; I am sure it is a wonderful newspaper, but it is not my staple reading.” This didn’t get into the paper.

The prize for invective-solely-designed-to-go-viral (from a strong field) went to Labour’s shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry, carrying the unfair advantage of five years in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet: “[A] man addicted to picking fights — confrontational, aggressive, thin-skinned and nasty,” “sexist,” “sleazy,” “Islamophobic,” an “offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change–denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist.” Her 800-word volley began with responses from among the “host of Australian political contacts” she had texted with the news (variations on “that must be a joke,” their “uniform theme”), and ended: “[If] Tony Abbott is the best answer Boris Johnson can come up with [to Britain’s trade deal void], we’re in even more trouble than we think.”

“During his brief, two-year premiership,” those contacts had told her, “his trade minister — Andrew Robb — succeeded in translating the previous Labor government’s legwork into agreements with China, Japan and South Korea, as well as progressing Australia’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All Abbott did was come along at the end of the process and sign the treaties. He has no hands-on experience of trade negotiations whatsoever.”

The one–two punch — he’s a cad, and clueless on trade — was something everyone could pitch in with, from arts, environmental, LBGT+ and sporting celebrities to MPs and diplomatic veterans of the Uruguay round. London mayor Sadiq Khan (“misogynistic and homophobic views”) and Scotland’s premier Nicola Sturgeon (“He’s a misogynist, a sexist, a climate-change denier who shouldn’t be any kind of envoy”), neither of them ever slow to hitch a ride on a passing bandwagon, drew from the now ubiquitous litany, though Labour leader Keir Starmer once more proved to be a canny operator: “I have real concerns about Tony Abbott and I don’t think he’s the right person for the job. And if I was prime minister I wouldn’t appoint him.”

Abbott’s exact status was still unknown, as the man himself confirmed on 1 September at that Commons hearing: “I think I would call it a role rather than a job… there is nothing official as yet.” Responding with good humour to grandstanding darts from Labour and Scots nationalist MPs (“a bit of lively banter and partisan sparring… brings back happy memories [of] the parliamentary chamber floor”), his message, consistent with many op-eds and speeches since the 2016 Brexit vote, was that London should follow up a bilateral trade deal with Canberra by joining the interim Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

More spicy were comments on end-of-life care and lockdown’s “psychic damage” at a lecture that morning to the Policy Exchange think tank — whose chair is Alexander Downer, formerly Australia’s high commissioner in London — which showed the Guardian’s diplomatic editor “how Abbott’s courting of controversy made his possible appointment by Johnson a high political risk.”

On the other side, the cheerleading of the Sun (or “Murdoch’s Sun,” to use the correct vernacular) lacked the paper’s usual fizz, given its exclusive that the “forthright Aussie” is “to be unveiled as Britain’s new trade deal supremo” or, more formally, “joint President of Britain’s relaunched Board of Trade.” Johnson himself, as so often in these months, was absent from the front line, leaving ministers to defend the still-hazy appointment.

A mannequin could plausibly have done better. Health secretary Matt Hancock, a gung-ho crusader amid every Covid-19 setback, quailed at a Sky News presenter’s checklist of Abbott quotes. Liz Truss, the Panglossian trade secretary who doubles as minister for women and equalities, when asked “why is it right that someone who is widely viewed as sexist, homophobic and a climate-change denier should be representing Britain around the world?” replied, “What I’d say about Tony Abbott is that he’s a former prime minister of Australia. Australia is a key ally of the United Kingdom and he has done a very good job in areas like trade.”

Through this wan defence, Australian ex-diplomats had already bowled some scornful zingers. Abbott would be “a sporadic distraction, as is his wont” in any Australian–UK process, not “window dresser” but “window breaker,” former trade negotiator Tim Ward opined in the right-wing Telegraph, adding that “[given] how destabilising his very presence seems to be, it could even be viewed as a cunning ploy by Australia to rattle the other side.” Mike Rann, who preceded Downer as high commissioner, said Abbott was known for “picking a scrap with anyone,” then nailed press coverage with a sly mention of Johnson’s most hapless cabinet placeman.

A trio of ex–Australian PMs who had jousted with Abbott, now regulars in London’s media firmament and treated with the deference that status entails, also joined the fray, thickening the flavour of an Australian proxy war fought on British shores, a kind of contrived semblance — once more, the second time as bathos — of ABC’s spellbinding The Killing Season.

Beyond doubting that Abbott could actually negotiate on behalf of the UK (“awkward to say the least”), Malcolm Turnbull added little to the caustic portrait of “wrecker” Abbott in his hefty autobiography, while Kevin Rudd (“Is the UK joking?”) took another chance to assail “Bozo the Clown’s” climate and health record. “If the UK goes through with this, he will be an albatross around their neck.” Julia Gillard’s own Sky News gig was a model of message discipline, first in promoting a book, then in holding to a tight script over her viral 2012 speech, fixedly not naming its targets. (“I stand by every word but I don’t think I need to add to it. It’s not for me to work out who should be the UK trade envoy or specialist.”)

For their part, some of Abbott’s ideological confrères were initially stunned by the way that the Sun’s 250-word pebble had, Withnail & Ilike, set off an avalanche by mistake. A more downbeat tone might have served them better. (“Oz reject is Brit pick,” or “Aussie ex-PM bats for Blighty” — more originals on request.) Talking to themselves, they had omitted to game-plan his character and record becoming headline news in the old country. But as the vitriol fed on itself, as per the modern PMS, a retaliatory barrage, notably male-heavy, was let loose, its gist that Abbott was being traduced and merits the post.

Lamenting “personal abuse” and “cheap caricature,” the monthly Critic’s political editor Graham Stewart saw Abbott in eminent terms: an “Anglophile former prime minister of one of Britain’s friendliest allies” and a former Rhodes scholar and monarchist on whom the Queen bestowed the Order of Australia “for his life of public service” (accolades become a mite rickety) with an effective record of “bilateral diplomacy.” Daniel Hannan, prolific evangelist for Brexit and the Anglosphere, echoed the claim (“He knows how to get ambitious trade deals done. We are lucky to have him”), as did Downer (“Tony has huge experience of navigating through the thorny bushes of trade agreements”), while the Adam Smith Institute’s Matthew Lesh said he can “provide the advice and advocacy to get deals over the final, contentious hurdles that inevitably develop at a political level.”

Lesh’s vigorous polemic conceded “some questionable comments” by Abbott “in the past,” but defended him by referring to the supportive testimony of Abbott’s sister Christine Forster and late gay friend Christopher Pearson, the “deranged hatred” of a left now “rushing for the pitchforks,” how British views of Abbott have been “twisted” by Gillard’s “out-of-context speech,” and even Peter Hartcher’s morning-after column in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Being a conservative, with traditional social views, should not disqualify someone from all positions in public life,” Lesh argued.

That same day, 4 September, former Abbott adviser Terry Barnes published an eerily similar piece (a “flawed” man who “has said unwise, even stupid, things in the past — who hasn’t?”… whose image is “framed by his political enemies”… “vicious caricature”… “a skilled negotiator who can reconcile competing interests”… “nobody remembers the context of that fiery speech”…).

The PMS, imperious offspring of the pre-internet era’s “media circus,” is happiest in a vacuum. Information tends to get in its way. By now this one had lasted for nine days without a single new fact. Equally familiar was this PMS’s pattern: an ogre, affixed with twittified bio and shaming quotes, becomes the pretext for cartoonish, self-inflatable sloganeering that not only elicits an imitative defence but also shapes even the less reductive outpouring. The only thing in doubt was how it would exhaust itself.

Whispers of another backflip, a motif of Johnson’s premiership, began to spread. But on 4 September, with Julia’s Sky interview also doing the rounds and another weekend’s torrid headlines in sight, a hard-hatted Boris, asked where Tony stood in light of the row, delivered a typically writhing answer: “There’s going to be an announcement about the composition of the board of trade. I obviously don’t agree with those sentiments at all, but then I don’t agree with everyone who serves the government in an unpaid capacity on hundreds of boards across the country. And I can’t be expected to do so. What I would say about Tony Abbott is this is a guy who was elected by the people of the great liberal-democratic nation of Australia. It’s an amazing country, it’s a freedom-loving country, it’s a liberal country. There you go, I think that speaks for itself.”

By late afternoon, it was official: “the Honourable Tony Abbott” would be one of nine advisers to the board of trade, just as the Nine group’s Bevan Shields had intimated on day one, channelling an evidently impeccable source. (Abbott will serve in “some sort of advisory capacity,” he had posted.) The board, one of eleven committees tasked with refuelling UK strategy in key policy areas, includes Patricia Hewitt, the Canberra-born former trade secretary in Tony Blair’s government, Linda Yueh, economist and broadcaster, and investment banker William Russell, also mayor of London’s financial district as well as a member of the previous board suspended in July. That Russell functions as a friend of China’s establishment, with the ineluctable tangles the position now involves, raised zero interest amid the PMS.

That, for the present, was that. Now, between quarterly meetings with new colleagues, Abbott can get down to the work — unpaid, expenses aside, and scarcely glamorous — of “[engaging] extensively with industry, communities, farmers and consumer groups across the UK, to ensure a range of voices are heard as the UK develops its independent trade policy.” As he customises this bland spec, Zoom-networking an Australia–East Asia–UK triangle, progress will also depend on Brexit’s endgame with the European Union (in short: a trade deal or not?), and even on how Britain’s stew of economic and political uncertainties, not least the course of Boris Johnson’s government, plays out. Among these, a “growing Tory love for Australia,” albeit tendentious and needy, is cohesive for the party, with Abbott himself the emblem. It’s not you, it’s us, might well be the unspoken declaration.

More tasty are incipient signs of a roving commission for Abbott. The Financial Times reports this week that home secretary Priti Patel’s pondering the idea of sending far afield the migrants (Iranian, Afghan, Sudanese and more) who crossed the English Channel on small vessels “is further evidence of the influence of Tony Abbott’s ideas on Boris Johnson’s government.” Ascension Island in the south Atlantic was one candidate, Shetland in the North Sea another. (This chimera jolted recall of an observation by the CIA’s Frank G. Wisner in 1949, regarding the doomed Anglo-American venture to oust Albania’s communist regime, as recounted by the KGB spy Kim Philby: “Whenever we want to subvert any place, we find the British own an island within easy reach.”)

Here is the second potential seed of the next Abbott spasm, the first being the fintech entrepreneur Anne Boden’s barbed declaration of pride when her own trade board membership became known: “[It] is important that we have challenging voices at such an important body. I support diversity and so did this woman,” linking to Julia Gillard’s famous speech.

The PMS was wilting from the moment of Johnson’s interview, though the Guardian’s autopump turned Friday’s front-page lead “Pressure on PM to drop ‘misogynist’ trade adviser” into Saturday’s “PM appoints ‘misogynist’ Abbott as trade adviser.” By then the next spasm was being given lift-off by Extinction Rebellion’s two-week protest carnival, as the eco-activists’ blockage of roads and newspaper deliveries, plus its mounting of a Titanic-themed posh tea party and a model lighthouse named Greta Thunberg, incited the gamut of reaction from fury to ridicule.

Abbott fever left no trace. That may have owed a little to the swift handover to Extinction Rebellion. But two factors are more fundamental (and also fit XR, Dominic Cummings’s lockdown trip, and Black Lives Matter in its local variant). First, the PMS exists in an eternal present, absorbing into itself all other temporalities. In a flash, it dominates. Once popped, it vanishes. Thanks to a first in human history — the melding of instant amnesia and instant retrievability — it is also ever available for an encore. When that hits, and the manic carousel is unblushingly reprised, there is no sense of a previous iteration, since everything now belongs to the new eternal present.

Second, the PMS is always primarily about itself, reducing to effluent its notional subject and putative ethical concerns. Driven way beyond its natural life or level by value-spawning attention, clicks and noise, it operates to disallow any resolution or release. It can never offset the vast resources it devours and the coercive hyperbole of its language. Thus the PMS is a guarantor of disappointment.

From the consumer side, to accept the PMS on its own terms would be to overlook its many foreclosures. An oblivious British public was given no hint that Abbott himself, if unlikely ever to be stuck with the most plangent judgement in The Killing Season’s four hours — Jenny Macklin’s “people are complex” — might be viewed in other than Manichean terms. Neither his own capsule self-portrait in response to David Marr’s Political Animal — “a more nuanced and complex character than perhaps many of the standard left-leaning critics would concede” — nor the book itself, nor anything else from the Abbott oeuvre, got a look-in. The PMS can’t accommodate nuance, complexity — or curiosity.

Neither did themes pertinent to Abbott’s heralded job receive much attention during the PMS: the contours of an Australia–UK trade negotiation, the tenability of the Anglosphere, and the wider Tory infatuation with down under (Isaac Levido’s key strategic role in Number 10 as but one example) — or even the fate of its Labour counterpart. The British Foreign Policy Group’s Sophie Gaston, viewing “today’s antipodean dalliance” in equable terms (“something feels unique about the Australian influence in British politics in 2020”), was an exception.

The political–media spasm can well afford to ignore such laments. The now-unguarded public realm, beneficiary of and in thrall to social media’s flattening of silos, is its playpen. No wonder the great national drama — as music hall to film, or silents to talkies — could not survive. What the PMS can offer in place is less than clear. But when so many are happy to play Bozo the Clown, perhaps that hardly matters. •