Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been appointed as an unpaid trade adviser to the UK government, Downing Street has confirmed.
Boris Johnson rejected claims Mr Abbott was not suitable for the role ,despite criticism over past comments on women and LGBT people.
The UK prime minister said he did “not agree with those sentiments”.
But Mr Johnson said he “can’t be expected” to agree with everyone who works with the government.
He added that Mr Abbott had been elected by the “great, liberal democratic nation of Australia,” adding: “I think that speaks for itself.”
He will have no direct role in future trade negotiations, instead advising ministers and officials, as part of a panel of experts.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he had “real concerns” and “wouldn’t appoint” Mr Abbott if he were prime minister.
Mr Abbott, who was prime minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015, negotiated free trade deals with Japan, China and South Korea.
Shadow international development secretary Emily Thornberry issued a statement opposing the appointment, saying: “We need to judge Tony Abbott not just on his despicable personal history of offensive statements and views, but on his equally dismal professional record as well.”
A group of equality activists – including actor Sir Ian McKellen and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies – has written an open letter against Mr Abbott’s appointment.
The letter, which highlights Mr Abbott’s opposition to same-sex marriage, says: “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’.”
“For all these reasons and more besides, this man is not fit to be representing the UK as our trade envoy,” it added.
But Mr Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, defended him against claims of misogyny and homophobia.
“As a woman who has always been part of his life and who came out to him as gay in my early 40s, I know incontrovertibly that Tony is neither of those things,” she wrote on Twitter.
“In reality he is a man of great conviction and intellect; an unabashed conservative but with great compassion, respect for others, and an indelible sense of doing what is right.”
She added that he would be an “outstanding trade envoy for the UK”.
Mr Abbott’s position is as a member of the UK board of trade, a panel of experts that is being put together to advise International Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked on Sky News about concerns surrounding Mr Abbott’s attitude towards women and homosexuality.
Mr Hancock said he did not believe Mr Abbott was homophobic or misogynistic, and when pushed, he added: “He is also an expert on trade.”
Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Wes Streeting accused Mr Hancock of hypocrisy after the health secretary tweeted about the “fantastic” new LGBT-inclusive relationships and sex education programme introduced in schools.
Mr Bryant said: “So why on earth would you countenance Tony Abbott as a trade envoy?”. Mr Streeting tweeted: “Matt, we know you’re a social liberal with a decent voting record on LGBT equality. That’s why your defence of Tony Abbott was even more nauseating.”
In the Commons on Thursday, Liz Truss – who is leading the UK’s post-Brexit trade talks around the world – was asked about the possible appointment.
She said: “I think it’s absolute hypocrisy to hear this type of argument from the Labour Party.
“This is a party that has never elected a female leader despite having the opportunity time and time again.
“The reality is they’d rather virtue signal and indulge in tokenism rather than take real action to improve the lives of women.”