Rishi Sunak provoked outrage by joking about the “definition of a woman” in the Commons as the mother of murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey visited parliament.
The prime minister clashed with Sir Keir Starmer over the continuing trans debate at PMQs as Esther Ghey was due to appear in the public gallery just four days after her 16-year-old daughter’s killers were jailed for life.
Mr Sunak accused the opposition leader of being incapable of “defining a woman” and that it was one of a number of issues on which he had performed a U-turn.
But his jibe prompted howls of protest from MPs, who accused him of a “cruel” joke, “shameful” behaviour and using minorities as a punchline.
After the heated clashes, Labour called on Mr Sunak to apologise but Downing Street defended the prime minister’s conduct, describing it as “legitimate”.
Outraged by the remarks, Brianna’s father Peter Spooner demanded an apology, saying he was “disgusted” with Mr Sunak, before branding the comments “degrading” and “absolutely dehumanising”.
The row deepened further when the business secretary Kemi Badenoch accused Labour of weaponising the issue for their political ends.
The incident is bound to be used by Mr Sunak’s critics as further evidence that he is “tin-eared” – an allegation rejected by his allies.
The clash came as Mr Sunak accused the Labour leader of breaking pledges he was elected on, adding that Sir Keir had U-turned on “defining a woman, although, in fairness, that was only 99 per cent of a U-turn”.
The tone-deaf remarks were in reference to Sir Keir’s previous comments that “99.9 per cent of women do not have penises”.
An angry Sir Keir immediately admonished the Tory leader. He said: “Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame.”
He accused the PM of “parading as a man of integrity when he has got absolutely no responsibility”, while shouts of “shame” rang out from the backbenches.
He added: “I think the role of the prime minister is to make sure that every single citizen in this country feels safe and respected, and it’s a shame the prime minister doesn’t share that.”
It later emerged that Brianna’s mother had not been in the Commons chamber when Sir Keir and Mr Sunak crossed swords, although both men were under the impression she was.
She arrived soon afterwards, however.
Asked about the remarks by Sky News later in the evening, Mr Spooner said: “As the prime minister for our country, to come out with degrading comments like he did, regardless of them being in relation to discussions in parliament, they are absolutely dehumanising.
“Identities of people should not be used in that manner, and I personally feel shocked by his comments and feel he should apologise for his remarks.”
The blunder is the latest in a series of political missteps from the PM. He was criticised for betting Piers Morgan £1,000 that deportation flights to Rwanda would take off before the general election, and for an embarrassing moment when he laughed as a mother pleaded with him to cut NHS waiting lists for her daughter.
Mr Sunak did not apologise for his jibe, although at the end of PMQs, he did address Ms Ghey to praise her “compassion and empathy”, reiterating that he thought she “demonstrated the very best of humanity in the face of seeing the very worst of humanity”.
Tory MP Jamie Wallis, the UK’s first transgender MP, said Mr Sunak had been insensitive: “I know from my own interactions with the prime minister that today’s display of insensitivity must have been inadvertent. Today has been a tough day for me but all I can think about right now is Brianna’s mother. Let us all think of her as we choose how to progress with this debate.”
One former Conservative minister said they were appalled.
Tory backbencher Dehenna Davison said it was “disappointing to hear jokes being made at the trans community’s expense. Our words ... resonate right across our society, and we all need to remember that.” Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds said it was not the first time the PM had “used LGBT+ people as a punchline to a cruel joke”. But she described his latest jibe as a “shameful new low”.
Labour’s Jess Phillips called the prime minister “an absolute disgrace”.
On social media site X, formerly Twitter, she wrote: “Rishi Sunak is an absolute disgrace. Deplorable man with no heart, no sense, no clue. The sooner we are rid the better.”
Rishi Sunak is an absolute disgrace. Deplorable man with no heart, no sense, no clue. The sooner we are rid the better.
— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) February 7, 2024
She added: “How dare he be so gross in the face of the family of a murdered child. He is the lowest of the low.”
Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, one of the first openly gay MPs elected to parliament, called Mr Sunak a “disgusting man” and accused him of “making transphobic slurs”.
No 10 defended Mr Sunak’s remarks as “legitimate” and did not rule out that he would use them again.
The prime minister’s press secretary said it was “legitimate” for Mr Sunak to “point out the number of U-turns the leader of the opposition has made,” and said they did not accept the prime minister had used trans people as a punchline.
Today I met Esther Ghey, whose daughter Brianna was murdered last year.
I am utterly in awe of her strength and bravery in the face of such unimaginable grief, as she campaigns to make sure no parent has to go through what she did.
Labour will work with campaigners and parents… pic.twitter.com/hR1lIQu7oC
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) February 7, 2024
Sir Keir, who met Brianna’s mother at her request, pledged his party would “work with campaigners and parents like Esther to ensure our children and young people have the mental health support they need”.
But Ms Badenoch hit back, saying: “Every murder is a tragedy. None should be trivialised by political point-scoring. As a mother, I can imagine the trauma that Esther Ghey has endured.
“It was shameful of Starmer to link his own inability to be clear on the matter of sex and gender directly to her grief.
Every murder is a tragedy. None should be trivialised by political point-scoring. As a mother, I can imagine the trauma that Esther Ghey has endured.
It was shameful of Starmer to link his own inability to be clear on the matter of sex and gender directly to her grief. (1/2)
— Kemi Badenoch (@KemiBadenoch) February 7, 2024
“As Minister for Women and Equalities, I’ve done all I can to ensure we have taken the heat out of the debate on LGBT issues while being clear about our beliefs and principles.
“Keir Starmer’s behaviour today shows Labour are happy to weaponise this issue when it suits them.”
In his Tory conference speech last year, Mr Sunak told Conservative delegates in Manchester: “We shouldn't get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t – a man is a man and a woman is a woman.”
LGBT+ charity Stonewall called Mr Sunak’s words “cheap, callous and crass”.