A government minister has defended Rishi Sunak’s transgender jibe after the father of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey called on the prime minister to apologise.
Chris Philp, the policing minister, insisted on BBC Breakfast that Sunak had “made no reference at all to any individual trans people” and was instead “making a point about Labour’s very numerous flip-flops”.
Sunak is under pressure to apologise for making a joke at the expense of transgender people at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, just after he was told by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, that Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, was in the public gallery.
Brianna, who was transgender, was lured to a park in Cheshire and murdered by two teenagers in February last year. Starmer welcomed Esther Ghey to the Commons on Wednesday and praised her “unwavering bravery” before asking Sunak a question about NHS waiting lists.
In response the prime minister listed what he called broken Labour promises, telling the Commons: “I think I 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.”
The jibe drew cries of “shame” from opposition MPs, who called for Sunak to apologise. A visibly angry Starmer responded: “Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in the chamber.”
Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, said Sunak’s remark was “absolutely dehumanising” and called for him to apologise. “For the prime minister of 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,” he told Sky News.
Facing questions about the controversy on Thursday morning, Philp declined six times on BBC Breakfast to say whether he thought Sunak’s jibe was appropriate or respectful.
Asked whether he was suggesting that Brianna’s father had misunderstood the prime minister’s remark, Philp said he was “very sad” to read Spooner’s response and added: “I have got every respect for, obviously, the views and feelings of a bereaved father.”
He insisted that the prime minister was making a political point about Labour and that Starmer was “actually wrong” to bring up Brianna after Sunak’s remark.
“It is of course important to conduct public debate respectfully,” Philp told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. “That is why I think it was actually wrong of Keir Starmer to introduce Brianna as a subject in the next question, because Rishi Sunak had not made any reference to any individuals.”
Sunak has offered to meet Esther Ghey but no meeting has been publicly confirmed.
Although some Conservative MPs have criticised Sunak’s remark, the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, accused Starmer of trying to use Brianna’s murder for “political point-scoring”.
Philp told Times Radio: “The point the prime minister was making was about flip-flops and U-turns, and he listed about 10 different flip-flops and U-turns that Keir Starmer’s made – he’s making another one, I understand, later on today, on this £28bn that seems to be vanishing or is being U-turned, or they’re saying they can do the policy without it costing anything, or some similar nonsense.”
“So, the PM was trying to highlight Keir Starmer’s flip-flops and U-turns, and that I think was an understandable thing to do.”
“As a more general point, when talking about difficult and sensitive issues, it is obviously important for everyone in public life, all of us – journalists, politicians, everybody – just to use measured and respectful language.”