The Guardian view on Rishi Sunak’s transgender jibe: sorry seems to be the hardest word

<span>‘By failing to acknowledge his error – and make amends – Mr Sunak emphasises a lack of a connection with, curiosity about and compassion for others.’</span><span>Photograph: PA</span>
‘By failing to acknowledge his error – and make amends – Mr Sunak emphasises a lack of a connection with, curiosity about and compassion for others.’Photograph: PA

Rishi Sunak needs to say sorry. Using transgender people as a political punchline in the Commons last week while the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey was in parliament was grossly offensive. He should apologise rather than continue with self-exculpatory dodges. By failing to acknowledge his error – and make amends – Mr Sunak emphasises a lack of a connection with, curiosity about and compassion for others.

Brianna’s father was right when he called the prime minister’s words degrading and dehumanising. He has asked for an apology. But it’s hard to communicate with people if you haven’t listened to them. These are grieving parents of a young person who was murdered, in part, because of her transgender identity. Expressing regret for his crass jibe is the least Mr Sunak can do. But, sadly, grubby electoral calculations appear more important to him than basic human decency.

The prime minister has chosen to prevail in the court of public opinion he cares about most – the opinion of reactionary voters. Mr Sunak thinks he must win these over if he has any chance in the Wellingborough byelection, one of two on the same day this week. Hence his attempt on Monday to reach out to voters on GB News, a TV channel that trades in “anger-tainment”. It’s a desperate ploy. Wellingborough’s Tory MP was forced to leave parliament after a recall was triggered, having been found to have bullied a staff member as well as indecently exposed himself to them in a hotel room.

Backed by a Brexit-supporting multi-millionaire, GB News, like its prime-time star Nigel Farage, is remaking the Conservatives. A recent survey of Tory members by the ConservativeHome website found more than half now tune into GB News. The channel provides a home for divisive cultural issues. Nastiness is what it has primed viewers to crave. James Kanagasooriam from the pollster Focaldata last week wrote about how social attitudes explained today’s tribal politics. His work suggests supporters of Mr Farage’s Reform party are overwhelmingly anti-immigration and anti-net-zero. Seven out of eight believe white people are the forgotten victims of racism and that gender at birth cannot be changed. With Reform polling higher than the Lib Dems, Mr Sunak thinks dignity can take a back seat. He’s wrong, as even some cabinet ministers publicly acknowledge.

Such is the state of the Conservative party that it experiments with government by conspiracy theory, with “15-minute cities” influencing transport policy. Paranoia might animate GB News viewers, but it won’t translate to the rest of the country. Polling suggests they want better public services and higher taxes for the rich. Paying a tax rate of just 23% on £2.2m of his “earnings and gains” last year surely lies behind why Mr Sunak can’t connect with hard-up voters.

Since Brianna’s death, local Tory politicians have refrained from using wider transgender issues, which can be of legitimate public interest, for “culture war” attacks. Tragedy had awakened them from a partisan nightmare. Mr Sunak could have used this moment to appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”. Instead he leaned into grievance stoking. He might think it helps him make the case against Labour without having to discuss actual policy, and avoid being held accountable for outrageous acts such as giving party cronies and donors peerages. Healthy civil discourse this is not. And it ends up in a very dark place, as a murdered teenager’s parents found out last week.

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