Boris Johnson's plan to send 'Beefy' Down Under is pro-Brexit gesture politics

Ian Botham's new Australia trade envoy job is with little merit, says Chris Blackhurst

Well, you must hand it to Boris Johnson. First, he makes Ian Botham, the cricketer, a life peer, prompting much derision. Then, Johnson appoints Botham the UK’s trade envoy to Australia.

The reason for the original ridicule was that few people, apart from presumably Johnson and his circle, could see anything that merited “Beefy”, as he is known, being made a “Lord”. He was a star player in his day, more than that a superstar, an all-rounder who famously slayed the Australians in the 1981 Ashes test series.

Once he retired from playing, Botham did some creditable charity work, leading sponsored marathon walks; he has a penchant for wine, which culminated in him lending his name to a Cabernet and a Chardonnay (£5.99 from Waitrose); he had run-ins with the tabloids, including one revelation about an extra-marital affair that led to a public apology to his wife, Kathy; and he did match commentary for TV. And that was about it. A life peerage? No way.

Botham, though, won Johnson’s admiration and not just for his cricket. He presented himself as a quintessential Englishman; solid, a monarchist, a conservative who likes traditional pursuits, like game shooting and fly-fishing. He was a natural Conservative, and to boot, a staunch Brexit supporter, displaying such profundity as “Personally, I think that England is an island. I think that England should be England. And I think that we should keep that.”

So, in July last year, Botham joined the Lords. Then, this week, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced that along with two fellow peers and seven MPs, Botham is to be one of 10 new trade envoys. “Delighted we have appointed cricket legend Ian Botham as our new trade envoy to Australia,” the cabinet minister tweeted. “Ian will bat for business down under and help them seize the opportunities created by our historic trade deal. He’ll do a brilliant job.”

This, for a man who reportedly once proclaimed “Aussies are big and empty, just like the country” and in an interview last November about joining the Lords, said, “I’m enjoying it and will be at Westminster more often when we get back to normal, especially when they are debating something I know about - like sport or the countryside. Not much point if it’s a trade deal with Japan.”

Botham’s role is unpaid and voluntary. He’s one of 36 trade envoys drawn from Parliament, covering 76 countries. According to the official release, they “use their skills, experience, and market knowledge to help UK businesses find new export and investment opportunities and promote UK trade in their allocated market.” Declared Truss: “By boosting exports, promoting inward investment and creating high-value, high-paying jobs, our trade envoys will help us build back better from Covid-19, ensuring every part of the UK benefits from our trade strategy.”

You can only ask: do they really believe this stuff? There should be a yearly audit of how Botham has used his skills, experience and market knowledge exactly, and just how many high-value, high-paying jobs he’s helped to create.

As it happens, I had dinner recently with one of the existing envoys. I can’t say who because it was off-the-record. I quizzed him as to how he came to be appointed. He said he had no idea, he had no connection with the country he was allocated, never been there, had no contacts there. What knowledge he displayed appeared to have been gleaned from a cursory read of Wikipedia. I mentioned a major breaking news story coming out of the nation in question but he’d not seen it.

He intended to go once travel restrictions were lifted. Who would he be meeting? He had no idea, he shrugged, whoever the officials thought he should see.

England captain Ian Botham hits a cover drive for 4 off Terry Alderman during the 1st test match against Australia at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, June 1981. England lost the match but won the series, which came to be known as 'Botham's Ashes'. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Getty Images)

Had he met people in the UK from there? A few, he said, but did not seem especially animated. Why did he do it? Because it’s a fascinating place and he was asked. Could he refuse? Not really, because to say no would be to offend and he would be marked down as someone not interested in assisting UK Plc and not “on side”. Not much else, government-wise, would come his way.

According to the trade department briefing: “In 2020/21, trade envoys supported over £16 billion of UK exports as part of DIT’s export promotion activity. Exports are central to the government’s ambition to level up the UK and build back better, with government-commissioned research estimating that exports supported 6.5 million jobs across the UK in 2016, 74 per cent of which were outside London.”

It's lowest common denominator guff, propaganda, chucking out slogans such as “level up” and “build back better” and “estimating”, note, 6.5 million new jobs and the now-ubiquitous higher proportion outside London. The trouble is, it’s allowed to go unchallenged. The word “supported” could mean anything, from turning up at cocktail parties and receptions, or more recently, giving a friendly wave on a Zoom call, just showing by holding the envoy title that the UK cares about the country. Certainly, judging by what he said, my man had not actively supported any of the £16 billion.

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Will any Australian business considering investing in Britain be influenced by Botham? What do you think?

It doesn’t matter, as far as Truss and her boss are concerned. This is gesture politics. It looks good, displays some activity, creates a frisson of positivity (when there is so much negativity around)... move on. Will any Australian business considering investing in Britain be influenced by Botham? What do you think?

Australians, however, regardless of what Botham has said on occasion, possess a begrudging admiration for him, and Botham for them. He can be guaranteed to liven up the dullest event, folk will gather round him, a celebrity who will be good for a picture, possibly a briefed on-message quote or two. You can almost hear the devil-may-care Johnson chortling as he writes his name: “Ian Botham, trade envoy to Oz? Ha, that will show them!”

It’s such a shame that Jeremy Clarkson is anti-Brexit or else he could have been one as well. Still, that leaves Harry Styles and David Beckham. No, they’re Remoaners. What about Joan Collins? “Yes, I do feel we should leave. I think we want our sovereignty and we want to make our own laws. This country is very different from the country I grew up in. I’ve seen a big change. This is a tiny island. There are too many people coming in and we’re going to sink into the sea with so many people.” Perfect. Make the Dynasty goddess a baroness and trade envoy as well. No, let’s go higher, she’d be a great ambo to Washington. Brilliant. Next!

Published: August 25th 2021, 9:00 AM
Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, based in London