Rishi Sunak triggered outrage in the House of Commons with a jibe about Labour Party leader Keir Starmer's stance on gender identity, as the mother of a murdered transgender teenager attended Parliament.
Esther Ghey, whose 16-year-old daughter Brianna was killed by two schoolmates in February last year, was meeting lawmakers as part of her campaign for young people to be blocked from accessing social media on smartphones. Though she was not present for Sunak's remark, she was in the Commons public gallery when opposition lawmakers demanded he apologize.
Brianna's father Peter Spooner later echoed that call, telling Sky News: "For the prime minister of our country to come out with degrading comments like he did, regardless of them being in relation to discussions in Parliament, they are absolutely dehumanizing."
The prime minster's comment came during a typically heated exchange with Starmer, in which Sunak accused the opposition leader - whose party has a commanding lead over the governing Conservatives in the polls - of flip-flopping on spending plans. He ended his answer with a jibe about Starmer's response when asked last year about the definition of a woman.
"It's a bit rich to hear about promises from someone who's broken every single promise since he was elected," Sunak told the Commons. "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 last line was a reference to an answer Starmer gave to the Sunday Times newspaper last April, when he was asked if women can have male genitals. "For 99.9% of women, it is completely biological... and of course they haven't got a penis," he replied, according to the paper.
It's a line the Tories have repeatedly referred to as part of a broader strategy to use so-called culture wars to try to claw back the 20-point gap to Labour ahead of a national election expected in the second half of 2024.
But the remark drew immediate condemnation among MPs, who were aware Ghey was attending Parliament. Brianna's murder with a hunting knife shocked the UK, and the judge cited "hostility to transgender identity" as an aggravating factor in the case as he sentenced Brianna's killers last week.
"Of all the weeks to say that when Brianna's mother is in this chamber - shame," Starmer said to Sunak. "Parading as a man of integrity when he's got absolutely no responsibility." When Labour MP Liz Twist used her question to call on Sunak to apologize, he ignored her, triggering further ire from MPs.
It wasn't until the end of Prime Minister's Questions that Sunak returned to the topic. Ghey "demonstrates the very best of humanity in the face of seeing the very worst of humanity," he said.
Still, Sunak's spokeswoman made clear the prime minister will not be saying sorry for the comment. "It's a legitimate thing to say," she told reporters.
The exchange with Starmer came just a week after Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle warned MPs to cut down on the curse words, arguing "there has been an escalation in unhelpful exchanges."
Sunak pledged to restore professionalism and integrity when he took office in late 2022, following the chaos of former premier Liz Truss's short-lived administration and the ethical missteps of Boris Johnson.
Yet the premier faced widespread criticism this week when he shook hands on a 1,000 pound bet during an interview with presenter Piers Morgan, about whether flights deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda would take off before the election.
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Opposition politicians accused Sunak of gambling on people's lives, as well as being out of touch with ordinary Britons given the size of the bet during a cost-of-living crisis. Sunak's office tried to walk back the bet the following day, saying the prime minister is "not a betting person."