Rishi Sunak has refused to apologise for making a remark about transgender people while the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey was in parliament.
The Prime Minister accused Keir Starmer of having difficulty in “defining a woman” during an attack on Labour U-turns.
The comment prompted an immediate backlash but Downing Street doubled down.
Sunak said at PMQs: “We are bringing the waiting lists down for the longest waiters and making progress, but it is a bit rich to hear about promises from someone who has broken every single promise he was elected on.
“I think I have counted almost 30 in the last year. Pensions, planning, peerages, public sector pay, tuition fees, childcare, second referendums, defining a woman – although in fairness, that was only 99% of a U-turn.”
The Labour leader, who met Brianna’s mother Esther Ghey later in the day, condemned the Prime Minister’s remark with a chorus of opposition backbenchers shouting out “shame”.
“Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber,” he said. “Shame. Parading as a man of integrity when he’s got absolutely no responsibility.”
He added: “I think the role of the Prime Minister is to ensure that every single citizen in this country feels safe and respected, it’s a shame that the Prime Minister doesn’t share that.”
Esther Ghey was not in the gallery at that point, as the Starmer and Sunak thought, but entered shortly after.
Nicola Sturgeon was among those to criticise the PM for the jibe, writing on X, formerly Twitter: “This was truly terrible from Sunak. But let’s not kid ourselves – had Brianna’s mum not been there today, no-one (including Keir Starmer) would have batted an eyelid.
“It’s not good enough to stand against transphobia only when the mother of a murdered trans girl might be listening. It needs to be done all of the time.”
Number 10 declined repeatedly to apologise for Sunak’s language and said it was part of a “legitimate” criticism of Labour.
Sunak’s press secretary said: “If you look back on what the Prime Minister was saying, there was a long list of u-turns that the leader of the opposition had been making.
“I don’t think those u-turns are a joke, it is quite serious changes in public policy. I think it is totally legitimate for the Prime Minister to point those out.”
“It is clearly part of what happens in the chamber, at prime minister’s questions, to point out the u-turns an opposition leader has made,” she added.
The Prime Minister also faced calls to apologise from Labour MP Liz Twist during the session but did not directly respond to her call.
But concluding Prime Minister’s Questions, he said: “If I could just say also to Brianna Ghey’s mother who is here, as I said earlier this week, what happened was an unspeakable and shocking tragedy.
“As I said earlier this week, in the face of that, for her mother to demonstrate the compassion and empathy that she did last weekend, I thought demonstrated the very best of humanity in the face of seeing the very worst of humanity.
“She deserves all our admiration and praise for that.”
This is not the first time the Prime Minister has attacked Labour over the issue of gender identity policies, which have been a frequent subject of debate in Westminster in recent years.
LGBT campaigners have condemned some of the language used by politicians to discuss transgender people, with the issue often drawn into the so-called “culture war” by right-wingers.
In his Tory conference speech last year, 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.”
A Labour spokesperson called on Sunak to apologise.
“We don’t think the country wants or deserves a Prime Minister that is happy to use minorities as a punchbag,” she said.
LGBT+ charity Stonewall called Sunak’s words “cheap, callous and crass”.
A spokesperson said: “The disrespect and dehumanisation of trans people that we see played out daily in the media and in our political discourse has real-life consequences and it has to stop.
“We call on the Prime Minister to apologise unreservedly for his comments, and for him to reflect on how careless words from those in power can and do result in harm.”
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