Picture credit: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Crocodile Keir

For all of Sunak’s shoddy timing, Starmer’s opportunism was pathetic

It’s been 24 hours and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing down calls for him to apologise for an ill-timed joke. Yesterday, during the faintly embarrassing bantz and bluster that characterises PMQs, Sunak had ribbed his opposite number about his policy flip-flopping, and his apparent inability to define “woman”.

“Although in fairness”, said Sunak, “that was only 99 per cent of a U-turn”. He was referring to Starmer’s ever-shifting standpoint on how many women have a penis.

Starmer responded by doing his very best disgusted of Tunbridge Wells face as he solemnly rebuked the Prime Minister:

Of all the weeks to say that… when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. 

Bringing attention to the Labour Party’s policy failure on “the woman question” was deemed to be grossly insensitive to the mother of the murdered, trans-identified teen. As it happens, reports suggest that Esther Ghey had left the gallery before the Prime Minister made his remarks. But ultimately, her presence or otherwise in the gallery should have no bearing on the exchange between politicians in the chamber. More generally, the grieving mother has made no public comment about the law on gender self-identification because, well — why should she?

Perhaps Sunak should have been aware that he was lumbering into an elephant trap. Certainly, those on the opposition bench either side of Starmer appeared to realise it; Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves permitted themselves a little smirk before quickly reconfiguring their features to signal the appropriate level of disapproval.

Dawn Butler MP was, for once, quick off the mark. She tweeted demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Jess Phillips MP used the opportunity to tell her followers that she was going to cuddle her sons, adding, “I hope Sunak cannot sleep a wink tonight, I hope he’s visited by the angst I would feel if I’d made even a hundredth of the insensitivity.” Not to be outdone, Zarah Sultana MP claimed to be “disgusted” by the “transphobic jibe” and that the murder of the teenager “should have finally taught politicians not to spread this hate.”

Ghoulish politicians were always going to jump on the comments, but criticism from Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, is perhaps harder to ignore. He called Sunak’s comments “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.

Brianna’s parents must be afforded every sympathy; to lose a child in such circumstances is unfathomably sad. But to be blunt, this doesn’t automatically give either of them any particular insight into the practical ramifications of gender self-identification, or the Labour Party’s proposed ban on what’s termed trans conversion therapy. 

Indeed, following the public naming of Brianna’s killers, Spooner said:

Without people accusing me of dead naming my child, most of my memories are with my son Brett.

Today, when Spooner’s request for an apology was put to Sunak, the PM swiftly moved on to explain that his comments had been about the Labour Party’s record, not any individual. (Starmer did indeed go from saying that 99.9% of women “haven’t got a penis” to saying that a woman is an “adult female”.) He added that the attempt to make comments about his opposition’s lack of policies about the tragic murder of a teenager demonstrated the “worst of politics”.

There is no clean way of neatly extracting the personal from the political. Sometimes, stories from politicians about their experiences can add depth to debates. When Rosie Duffield MP told the chamber about the domestic abuse she suffered, it brought a problem still too often shut behind closed doors to public attention. But what happened yesterday was an attempt to shut down discussion, and to stifle debate, on the shaky pretext that there was someone in the public gallery who might have been offended. 

The spectacle has been unedifying for all involved. Sunak has been revealed as at best miserably naïve and worst dismayingly insensitive. Meanwhile Starmer has shown himself to be prepared to use the grief of parents for political point scoring. In declining to apologise the Prime Minister has shown some moral fibre — time will tell if that is enough to cover his poor judgement.

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