LONDON (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced mounting pressure Wednesday to apologize for a remark he made about transgender people, moments after he was informed that the mother of a murdered transgender teenager was in Parliament.
During his weekly questioning in the House of Commons, Sunak sought to mock the position of the Labour Party’s leader on the definition of a woman.
In response to a question from Keir Starmer, Sunak listed a series of issues that he said showed the Labour leader making about-faces, ending with a quip about his stance on “defining a woman, although in fairness, that was only 99% of a U-turn.”
His remark was intended to embarrass Starmer, who Sunak’s Conservatives have accused of vacillating on the issue of self-identification, and who have pounced on his comment last year that “99.9% of women haven’t got a penis.”
Starmer, who had welcomed the mother of Brianna Ghey, Esther Ghey, was visibly furious in response. He said the comments were inappropriate, and Sunak later acknowledged Ghey’s presence, hailing her “compassion and empathy” — but failed to apologize.
“Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame,” Starmer said. “Parading as a man of integrity when he’s got absolutely no responsibility.”
Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, said that he was shocked to hear the remark and urged Sunak to apologize.
“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 dehumanizing,” he told Sky News.
Stonewall, a group that stands for LGBTQ+ rights, also urged Sunak to apologize for his “cheap, callous and crass” use of trans people as a “punchline.”
Last Friday, the two 16-year-old convicted murderers of Brianna a year ago were handed life sentences with minimum prison terms of 20 and 22 years.
The horrific murder shocked the nation. Brianna, who was 16, was stabbed with a hunting knife 28 times in her head, neck, chest and back in broad daylight after being lured to a park in the town o f Warrington in northwest England on Feb. 11, 2023.
Brianna’s mother has been widely praised for her dignified response, calling for the families of the convicted pair to be shown some empathy and compassion. In an interview Sunday with the BBC, she said she would be open to meeting the mother of Scarlett Jenkinson, one of Brianna’s two killers who according to the judge in the case was the ringleader.
Esther Ghey is campaigning for restrictions on what under-16s can access on their cellphones and for the wider use of mindfulness in schools, as a way to help teachers and children to look after their mental health.
Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt rejected a question from a BBC reporter that Sunak chose to use a line about gender as a “political punchline in the presence of a grieving mother.”
“That is not what happened,” he said. “What he was saying was that Keir Starmer cannot make his mind up about the big issues of the day.”
The exchange between Sunak and Starmer, who met up with Esther Ghey later Wednesday to discuss mental support for children, has stoked concerns about the level of debate before a general election later this year.
With his Conservative Party trailing the main opposition Labour Party heavily in the opinion polls, Sunak has come under pressure from some of his own lawmakers to put so-called culture war issues on the agenda, in an attempt to create dividing lines that could begin to dominate the public debate.