The father of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey has demanded an apology from Rishi Sunak after he made a “dehumanising” transgender joke in the Commons while the victim’s mother visited Parliament.
Peter Spooner said he was “shocked” by the jibe made during Prime Minister’s Questions, in which the PM accused Sir Keir Starmer of having difficulty in “defining a woman”.
The remarks have prompted an immediate backlash but Mr Sunak has so far refused to apologise, with Downing Street later insisting the comments were “totally legitimate” and not transphobic.
Mr Spooner told Sky News: “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.”
In response to his call for an apology, Government minister Laura Trott denied the remarks had been a “joke” and insisted they had “absolutely nothing to do with this appalling tragedy”.
However, it is understood Brianna’s family has now been invited to a meeting about online safety – which her mother, Esther Ghey, is campaigning to improve – with the Prime Minister and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan.
In an exchange with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Sunak said: “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.”
Sir Keir, who met Ms Ghey on Wednesday, condemned the Prime Minister’s remark, with a chorus of opposition backbenchers calling out: “Shame.”
“Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame,” the Labour leader said.
“Parading as a man of integrity when he’s got absolutely no responsibility.”
Number 10 repeatedly declined to apologise for Mr Sunak’s language, suggesting it was part of “legitimate” criticism of Labour.
Mr 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.
Within the session, Mr Sunak also faced calls to apologise from Labour MP Liz Twist, to which he did not directly respond.
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.”
Mr Sunak faced some criticism even from within his party ranks over the jibe.
Former business minister Jackie Doyle-Price told Times Radio it was “careless” and “very ill-judged” for him to use the joke “in that context” but also accused critics of having “weaponised” it.
Former junior minister Dehenna Davison said it was “disappointing to hear jokes being made at the trans community’s expense” and warned that “our words in the House resonate right across our society”.
Brianna was murdered by teenagers Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, who stabbed her to death in a Cheshire park last February.
During their sentencing earlier this month, the judge said the “exceptionally brutal” killing had elements of both sadism from Jenkinson and transphobic hate on the part of Ratcliffe.
Cabinet ministers defended their party leader over the exchange, with Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch accusing Labour of trying to “weaponise” the issue.
“It was shameful of Starmer to link his own inability to be clear on the matter of sex and gender directly to her grief,” she said.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Laura Trott told LBC: “I want to be really, really clear that this wasn’t a joke… It has absolutely nothing to do with this appalling tragedy.”
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt insisted that the PM “could not have been clearer about the enormous respect he has for Brianna Ghey’s mother” and that his point had been about Labour “flip-flopping on important issues”.
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 trans people, with the issue often drawn into the so-called “culture war” by right-wingers.
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.”
A Labour spokeswoman called on Mr 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 Mr Sunak’s words “cheap, callous and crass”.
A spokesperson said: “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.”