The five worst muddles politicians have got themselves into over trans rights

Composite image of Tony Blair and Keir Starmer separate
Keir Starmer could learn much from Tony Blair's clear thinking on gender

Trans rights may be one of the most divisive and contentious topics of the day, but Tony Blair believes politicians are needlessly getting themselves into a tangle over the issue.

“I don’t know how politics got itself into this muddle… Biologically, a woman is with a vagina and a man is with a penis,” the former Prime Minister said.

His intervention offered a rare moment of conviction and clarity in the trans debate, which has caused a succession of politicians to tie themselves in knots in recent years.

Here are some of the most glaring examples of the “muddle” Blair was speaking of.

Sir Keir Starmer

What he said first…

Given one of the key questions in the trans rights debate is “what is the legal definition of a woman?”, you would be forgiven for assuming that a barrister and former director of public prosecutions would be well placed to answer it. But Starmer’s stance on the subject since becoming Labour leader has been defined by inconsistency.

In March 2022, during an appearance on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show, he repeatedly refused to answer the question of whether a woman can have a penis.

“I don’t think that discussing this issue in this way helps anyone in the long run,” Starmer said.

The exchange came six months after the Labour leader dismissed comments made by Rosie Duffield, the long-suffering gender-critical MP for Canterbury (who has employed private security during the current election campaign for fear of attack from trans rights extremists), who said all women have a cervix.

Asked by the BBC whether Duffield’s position was transphobic, Starmer replied: “Well, it is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right.”

What he said later…

In April 2023, Starmer appeared to shift his tone, saying trans rights could not be allowed to override women’s rights.

He stressed that “99.9 per cent of women… haven’t got a penis” and pledged there would be no rolling back of hard-won women’s rights should he be elected prime minister.

“I think there is a fear that somehow there could be the rolling back of some of the things that have been won,” Starmer told The Sunday Times. “There are still many battles that need to go ahead for women and I don’t think we should roll anything back. I think we should go on to win the next battles for women. And that is a very important sort of starting point for this debate.”

Earlier this year, he also appeared to row back on his dismissal of Duffield’s remarks, saying she was correct in her assertion that only women have a cervix after all.

“Biologically, she of course is right about that,” Starmer told ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April.

“There’s a distinction between sex and gender,” he added.

Penny Mordaunt

What she said first…

During her stint as Equalities Minister in 2018, Penny Mordaunt said “trans women are women and trans men are men” and pledged to do more so that LGBT people could “thrive in the UK”.

What she said later…

Fast-forward to the Conservative leadership campaign of 2022 and the group “Conservatives for Women” labelled Mourdant “a committed warrior for the trans lobby”.

In response she tweeted “Do I Know What a Woman Is?” in bold letters, followed by the statement, “Some people born male and who have been through the gender recognition process are also legally female. That DOES NOT mean they are biological women, like me.”

Mordaunt also criticised what she called “the trans orthodoxy” and praised Sharron Davies, the former Olympic swimmer and one of the leading campaigners for biologically female-only sporting competition. “I’ve never supported self-ID,” she declared, seemingly at odds with her stance four years earlier.

Wes Streeting

What he said first…

When asked about the subject by The Sun earlier this year, the shadow health secretary said, “If you’d asked me a few years ago I would have said trans men are men and trans women are women” but now he no longer agreed with that idea or with the notion that people should just “get over it”.

What he said later…

In the wake of the Cass Review into NHS gender care, Streeting also said he no longer agreed with the assertions of the LGBTQ+ rights group Stonewall – where he had once worked.

Dr Hilary Cass published her report in April, and said much of the “evidence for gender medicine was flimsy and that puberty blockers should be used with extreme caution.”

“Now I sort of sit and reflect and think actually, there are lots of complexities,” Streeting told The Sun. “I take the criticism on the chin.”

Streeting said he had spoken to women in the Labour party who had been reluctant to raise concerns about women’s sex-based rights. “They said to me they felt silenced,” he said. “That can’t be a good thing and it’s led to a more toxic debate and conversation.”

However, Streeting maintained trans people had been “utterly failed” by the NHS.

In light of his apparent U-turn, feminist author Julie Bindel demanded an apology from the Labour politician for failing to support her gender-critical views when he was president of the National Union of Students (NUS). Bindel was no-platformed by the NUS in 2008, when Streeting headed the body, over her alleged “transphobia”.

John Swinney

What he said first…

The new First Minister of Scotland was Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy when she and the Scottish government pushed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill through Holyrood in December 2022. The Bill would allow anyone over 16 to change their legal sex by signing a declaration.

Swinney voted for it and remains committed to the legislation, although he now admits it cannot become law while it continues to be vetoed by the UK Government.

Last year, the Court of Session in Edinburgh rejected a challenge launched by the Scottish government to overturn the veto.

The Bill came amid controversy over the convicted transgender woman Isla Bryson – who committed two rapes while living as a man – being assessed in a women-only prison.

Bryson was eventually moved to a men’s prison and Sturgeon said “a rapist should not be in a women’s prison”, but the SNP suffered as a result of the former SNP leader’s repeated, uncharacteristically unclear answers to the question of whether Bryson was a man or a woman.

What he said later…

Scottish politics’ recent preoccupation with the trans debate means Swinney has been unable to avoid the topic since becoming the SNP leader.

His initial response after taking the role in May this year was to say, “I believe a woman is an adult female born as a woman, and I also accept that transgender women are defined as women.”

“To LGBT people in our society, the Scottish government is on their side,” he added.

Adding to the ambiguity over whether his remarks signalled a slight shift in position, Swinney said he believed the Cass review was “substantial” and “evidence based”.

Gillian Keegan

What she said first…

In 2020, in response to a question during a meeting in her Chichester constituency, the Education Secretary stated “trans women are women”, adding that trans people should have equal access to “safe spaces”.

What she said later…

In April this year, the Today programme presenter Emma Barnett put it to the Education Secretary that “you used to say trans women are women but you won’t now.” Keegan’s response, to say that she had herself been educated, ended in some Kafkaesque exchanges.

“What happened in 2020 was that I’d never really come across the subject,” said Keegan. “In December 2020 nobody had any idea that this was a campaign or code for something [gender self-identification] and we were just trying to be sensitive to what turned out was a campaign… I have learnt a lot in the last four years.”

Gillian Keegan interview, Chichester
Confusion: Gillian Keegan has contradicted herself multiple times - Eddie Mulholland

Keegan attempted to make the distinction between someone who self-identifies as a different gender from their biological sex and someone who has had full gender reassignment surgery.

But she appeared to somehow simultaneously agree with and contradict all her previous assertions – especially alarming given her department was issuing guidance on relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) in the Commons, which included an instruction to teachers that gender ideology should not be treated as fact.

“I’ve always known that trans women aren’t women,” Keegan told Barnett in April. “But in 2020 you wrote that trans women are women,” the presenter replied.

“What we were thinking about then was when a man who has fully transitioned is known as a woman,” said Keegan.