Rishi Sunak has refused to apologise to the family of murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey after making a joke about transgender people while her mother was visiting parliament.
The prime minister insisted the jibe, about how to “define a woman”, was “absolutely legitimate” because he was attacking Sir Keir Starmer’s indecisiveness - and said it was "sad and wrong" that the Labour leader had linked his comments to Brianna.
Asked if he would apologise, he said: “If you look at what I said, I was very clear, talking about Keir Starmer’s proven track record of u-turns on major policies because he doesn’t have a plan.”
Doubling down on the comments, Mr Sunak said Sir Keir’s plan to drop a flagship commitment to spend £28bn on green energy “demonstrated the point” he was making.
Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, demanded an apology over Mr Sunak’s joke, saying he was “disgusted” with Mr Sunak, before branding the comments “degrading” and “absolutely dehumanising”.
But Mr Sunak said critics were using his comments to “detract from the very separate and clear point I was making” and claimed it “demonstrates the worst of politics”.
As ministers also rallied to defend Mr Sunak, one even appeared to suggest Mr Spooner should “actually listen” to what the PM said.
And, in an apparent bid to save face over the episode, Mr Sunak has invited Brianna’s mother to Downing Street for a meeting about online safety.
Mr Sunak on Wednesday accused Sir Keir of being incapable of “defining a woman” and said it was one of a number of issues on which he had changed his mind.
But an angry Sir Keir immediately admonished the Tory leader. He said: “Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame.”
And on Wednesday night Ms Badenoch, who also oversees the government’s equality policy, said: “Every murder is a tragedy. None should be trivialised by political point-scoring.”
In tweets signed off by No10, the business secretary extraordinarily claimed that “as a mother, I can imagine the trauma that Esther Ghey has endured”.
And she doubled down on the PM’s comments, saying: “It was shameful of Starmer to link his own inability to be clear on the matter of sex and gender directly to her grief.”
Her tweets came as it emerged Mr Sunak, who has repeatedly refused to apologise over the joke, invited the Ghey family to Downing Street.
Mr Sunak has now invited Ms Ghey to a meeting about online safety, which she is campaigning to improve.
Policing minister Chris Philp told BBC Breakfast: “The Prime Minister made no reference at all to any individual trans people.
“It was Keir Starmer who introduced that. The Prime Minister was making a point about Labour’s very numerous flip-flops.”
Asked about Brianna Ghey’s father’s call for an apology, Mr Philp said: “I think anyone who is interested in this issue should actually listen to the clip, listen to the initial exchange.”
Asked if he was suggesting Brianna’s father Peter Spooner had misunderstood the Prime Minister’s comments, Mr Philp said: “I have got every respect for, obviously, the views and feelings of a bereaved father.”
On Wednesday Treasury chief secretary Laura Trott denied Mr Sunak’s remarks were a “joke” and insisted they had “absolutely nothing to do with this appalling tragedy”.
The chief secretary to the Treasury told LBC: “I want to be really, really clear that this wasn’t a joke…it has absolutely nothing to do with this appalling tragedy.”
Meanwhile chancellor Jeremy Hunt insisted that the PM “could not have been clearer about the enormous respect he has for Brianna Ghey’s mother” and that his point had been about Labour “flip-flopping on important issues”.
The blunder was the latest in a series of political missteps from the PM. He was criticised for betting Piers Morgan £1,000 that deportation flights to Rwanda would take off before the general election, and for an embarrassing moment when he laughed as a mother pleaded with him to cut NHS waiting lists for her daughter.
Brianna was stabbed to death by teenagers Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe in a Cheshire park last February.
During their sentencing earlier this month, the judge said the “exceptionally brutal” murder had elements of both sadism on the part of Jenkinson and transphobic hate on the part of Ratcliffe.
As the row continued, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said his views on gender identity are unchanged, that “a man is a man and a woman is a woman”. His spokesman said the Prime Minister’s view of the “definition of a woman is an adult, human female”.