In one sense this was Westminster discourse at its most depressingly normal, based on jibes about not knowing how to define a woman. But this time there was a difference: an onlooker who knows better than anyone how devastating the debate can be.
In the days since the sentencing last Friday of Brianna Ghey’s teenage killers, her mother, Esther, has been an incredibly dignified and thoughtful exemplar for debates on complex issues including social media use and transgender rights.
Jailing Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe for a minimum of 22 and 20 years respectively, the judge Mrs Justice Yip noted that their killing of Brianna was in part motivated by hostility towards the 16-year-old’s transgender identity.
All of a sudden, a political issue too often discussed in angry generalities could be seen through the prism of an actual person, and the most tragic of family stories.
Peter Spooner, Brianna’s father, said it had been difficult at times to be the parent of a transgender child, but he had been forging a different relationship with a daughter he described as “a lovely young girl”.
In a deeply moving interview with BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Esther Ghey reiterated her compassion for the killers’ parents, saying she would be open to meeting Jenkinson’s mother to tell her she did not blame her. Watching the exchange in the same studio, Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, wiped away tears.
And then Brianna’s mother watched Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions from the public gallery, joining her local Labour MP, Charlotte Nichols, before a planned meeting with Keir Starmer.
Ghey’s arrival was slightly delayed, and thus she missed Starmer announcing her presence. Then Rishi Sunak, who would have had no idea she was not yet there, launched into a clearly scripted attack on supposed Labour U-turns, one of which he said was “defining a woman – although in fairness that was only 99% of a U-turn”.
Sunak’s words about 99% of a U-turn referred to comments by Starmer last year that 99.9% of women “of course haven’t got a penis”, which while legally accurate – it remains possible to legally change one’s gender before gender reassignment surgery takes places – played into wider debates about the idea of self-identification for transgender people and the potential impact on single-sex women’s spaces.
Beyond Starmer’s seemingly genuine anger about Sunak’s remark on Wednesday, and the row over whether Sunak should apologise, it seems clear that the simplified narrative is back, not least because it is one the Conservatives see as effective.
Sunak has become an increasingly enthusiastic participant in this battle. His deeply awkward manner when pledging to protect “our women” during stump speeches when he fought Liz Truss for the Conservative leadership left many assuming he was an unwilling culture warrior who said such words because they were expected.
But inside No 10, when faced by a political choice, Sunak has invariably taken the less socially liberal decision, and those around him confirm he is not pretending. As his speech to October’s Tory party conference put it, “a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”
Was his willingness to plough on with such rhetoric in the presumed presence of Esther Ghey motivated by lack of concern or political clumsiness? Only Sunak knows. But when it comes to taunts about women and penises, as an election looms, we can expect much more of the same.