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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Embarrassment for British PM as high-profile appointment backfires

Theresa May had defended controversial right-wing journalist she named for university regulator post

British Prime Minister Theresa May had stood by Toby Young's appointment to the end, despite insisting she was “not at all impressed” by some of his previous comments. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
British Prime Minister Theresa May had stood by Toby Young's appointment to the end, despite insisting she was “not at all impressed” by some of his previous comments. EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

British prime minister Theresa May has suffered a setback as right-wing journalist Toby Young resigned from his government post after eight days amid a storm of criticism of his controversial comments.

Young said his appointment had “become a distraction” from the “vital work” of the Office for Students (OfS), and apologised for a string of comments he had made on social media in recent years, describing them as “ill-judged or just plain wrong”.

He had faced a backlash since his appointment was announced, with critics – including several prominent Conservative MPs – saying he was not suitable for the role.

However, Mrs May had stood by him despite saying she was “not at all impressed” by some of his remarks.

The opposition Labour party said the whole debacle “cast great doubt” on the prime minister’s judgment.

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said: “The Toby Young saga has cast great doubt on the judgment of the prime minister who failed to sack him in the first place.

“Then yesterday we had the spectacle of government universities minister defending his appointment in parliament, he had to go. Tory cronyism could not save his job,” Ms Rayner wrote on Twitter.

After Young was appointed to the board of the OfS, he deleted up to 40,000 tweets he had posted since 2009, including references to the size of women’s breasts.

Comments made about gay people, working-class students and the genetic engineering of human beings were also highlighted by critics.

A petition calling for his dismissal gathered almost 220,000 signatures.

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, the prime minister said: “When he was appointed, I was not aware of these comments that he had made.

“Frankly, I am not at all impressed by those comments. He is now in public office and as far as I am concerned, if he was to continue to use that kind of language and talk in that sort of way, he would no longer be in public office."

Other senior ministers, including foreign secretary Boris Johnson and environment secretary Michael Gove, had also stood by Young in the face of mounting pressure for him to stand down.

On Monday afternoon, ministers were forced to defend Young’s appointment during an urgent debate in the House of Commons.

A number of Tory MPs expressed their grave concerns over his suitability for public office, with one, Sarah Wollaston, drawing attention to his lurid and offensive past comments about refugees.

But the universities minister, Jo Johnson, defended Young during the debate and praised his work in education.

After learning of Young’s resignation on Tuesday, Mr Johnson again stood by him, saying: “Toby Young’s track record setting up and supporting free schools speaks for itself.

“His decision to stand down from the OfS board and repeat unreserved apologies for inappropriate past remarks reflects his character better than the one-sided caricature from his armchair critics.”

In an article in The Spectator on Tuesday, Young said: “The caricature drawn of me in the last seven days, particularly on social media, has been unrecognisable to anyone who knows me.”

He added: “Some of the things I said before I got involved in education, when I was a journalistic provocateur, were either ill-judged or just plain wrong – and I unreservedly apologise.”

Young's resignation came a day after Mrs May's cabinet reshuffle, which has been criticised for failing to take the opportunity to stamp her authority on a mutinous party.

At the end of a day when announcements of appointments on social media were reversed within minutes, Mrs May looked weak and vacillating.

Dawn Butler, Labour's shadow minister for women and equalities, said the "Toby Young saga has further exposed Theresa May's total lack of judgment in appointing him and her weakness in refusing to sack him".

"She should have removed him from his post, not personally backed him at the weekend and sent a minister out to defend him in Parliament yesterday."

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