In an otherwise low-energy session, Rishi Sunak lost prime minister’s questions today with a single, ill-judged quip.
As the party leaders tussled over their chosen issues and pre-election talking points — from the NHS to the non-dom tax status, Labour’s £28bn green pledge and, even, simply “getting Britain” — one of the prime minister’s pre-scripted anti-Starmer spiels fell singularly flat.
As he reeled off the Labour leader’s purported vices, the prime minister referenced his position on transgender rights, suggesting Starmer struggles with “defining a woman”. He joked that Starmer had made “99 per cent” of a U-turn over the issue of gender self-identification, invoking the Labour leader’s stated position that 99.9 per cent of women “of course haven’t got a penis”.
It was evidently lost on the prime minister that only moments ago Starmer had welcomed Esther Ghey, the mother of Brianna Ghey — a 16-year-old transgender girl who was murdered last year, to the commons gallery. Starmer said in his opening comments: “This week the unwavering bravery of Brianna Ghey’s mother, Esther, has touched us all. As a father, I can’t even imagine the pain that she’s going through and I’m glad that she’s with us in the gallery here today”.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Sunak’s remarks today were quickly met with cries of “shame” from opposition MPs; and they crescendoed as Keir Starmer took to his feet and gripped the despatch box. “Of all the weeks to say that – when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame”, the visibly furious Labour leader bellowed. He added: “Parading as a man of integrity, when he’s got absolutely no responsibility”
“I think the role of the prime minister is to make sure every single citizen of this country feels safe and respected, It’s a shame the prime minister doesn’t share that”
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was forced to intervene to quiet the shocked noises emanating from the opposition benches. Rishi Sunak then took to his feet, neglecting to comment on his previous remarks or Starmer’s righteous rebuke.
What is more, in response to a question from Labour MP Liz Twist later in the session, the prime minister refused to apologise for the comment. Subsequently, at the post-PMQs huddle with lobby journalists, Sunak’s spokesperson appeared to double down, stating that “it is totally legitimate for the prime minister to point out [Keir Starmer’s] U-turns”.
As it happens, Starmer is due to meet Esther Ghey this afternoon; and the Labour leader’s spokesperson relayed at the opposition’s own post-PMQs briefing: “We don’t think that the country wants or deserves a prime minister happy to use minorities as a punch bag. The comments were really, deeply offensive to trans people, and [Rishi Sunak] should reflect, reflect on his response there and apologise”.
In the end, if the PM — upon hearing that Esther Ghey was in the commons gallery — had the political nous to drop his maladroit punchline, he would have probably emerged unscathed from today’s low-stakes, pre-recess PMQs. But the result is a news agenda-driving, deeply ill-judged slip-up.
Moreover, this gaffe — while clearly exceptional in some striking ways — is the latest in a long line for the beleaguered Rishi Sunak. In fact, during the session today, Keir Starmer helpfully went on to list a series of the prime minister’s recent foot-in-mouth brain fades.
The Labour leader told the House in his final question: “Last week, [Sunak] and his MPs were laughing at someone whose mortgage had gone up £1,000 a month. This week, he’s casually made a £1,000 bet in the middle of an interview”.
PMQs verdict: Rishi Sunak stumbled as he vied for ‘Phil from Iceland’s’ vote
This latter comment, of course, was a reference to the prime minister’s apparent acceptance of a bet with TalkTV’s Piers Morgan, who doubts Sunak can succeed in securing flights of asylum seekers to Rwanda before the next election. The episode, released unto the world as part of an hour-long interview this week, was similarly castigated as tone deaf by the PM’s critics.
Starmer went on: “Last week, he thought even raising a question about the cost of living was ‘resorting to the politics of envy’. And this week he’s finally found the cause he wants to rally around, the non-dom [tax] status.
He rallied: “When [Sunak] finds himself backing tax avoidance over NHS appointments, does he start to understand why his own MPs are saying he simply does not get what Britain needs?”
This final comment was a reminder that PMQs today was ostensibly focussed on NHS dentistry — that was the topic, at least, that comprised the bulk of Starmer’s questioning. But Sunak’s throwaway remark regarding the Labour leader’s alleged inability to “define a woman” — an attempt to exploit a totemic “culture war” issue — will dominate commentary in the aftermath.
It is a reminder, too, that Sunak, while slick in some respects (especially relative to his two immediate predecessors), struggles at crucial politically charged moments. Never has the prime minister, who has only been an MP since 2015, remember, looked so politically inexperienced — or, worse still, out of his depth.
PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer 5, Rishi Sunak 1
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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