Brianna Ghey’s parents met hate with love, and Sunak chased cheap laughs. That says it all about him and his party | Gaby Hinsliff

Rishi Sunak had been warned that Brianna Ghey’s bereaved mother would be watching. If he hadn’t initially expected Esther Ghey to be in the public gallery, gazing down on the bear pit of prime minister’s questions like a visitor from another world entirely, then the penny should have dropped when Keir Starmer opened by welcoming her to parliament.

That was the prime minister’s cue to flip through his ring binder and cross out a tacky prepared line – variants of which he has used several times before – about Starmer changing his mind on everything from tuition fees to planning law to “defining a woman, although, in fairness, that was only 99% of a U-turn” (a reference to Starmer saying 99.9% of women don’t have penises). Nobody need ever have known. Ironically, the attack might have landed better without it, given the day’s headlines would then have been dominated by Labour flip-flopping on green policies instead of a mortifying prime ministerial misjudgment.

But Sunak didn’t do it. He didn’t see the ground opening up under him. He just rattled through the script, seemingly unaware that he’d just used transness to score cheap political points while a murdered trans girl’s mother was actually in the building, and only days after a judge had deemed anti-trans hatred to be part of a complex motive for that killing. If Starmer’s cry of “shame!” sounded unusually heartfelt, he has enough gay friends for LGBT hate crime not to be an abstract issue for him, and it’s perhaps more personal still for a number of gay MPs on both sides of the house. Yet, extraordinarily, after a night’s reflection, Sunak still chose to not apologise publicly to Brianna’s parents, insisting that it was “sad and wrong” to link his trans jibe to their dead child.

All this followed an earlier interview with TalkTV’s Piers Morgan in which the prime minister somehow ended up shaking hands with Morgan on what was essentially a cheery pub bet – £1,000 to a refugee charity, geddit? – that he couldn’t send any asylum seekers to Rwanda before the election. Later, presumably after realising how bad it looked, Sunak said he was “not a betting person”. On the evidence so far, he may not really be a politics person either. How on earth will he cope in an actual election campaign, where furious passersby and sneaky media ambushes lurk round every corner, and any slip ends up going horribly viral? The ever-cautious Gordon Brown was caught out by a forgotten microphone, accidentally broadcasting a conversation about the supposedly “bigoted” Mrs Duffy that Brown thought was private. Sunak seems more likely to drop a clanger right out in public.

Everyone involved will, no doubt, be feeling privately uncomfortable about upsetting a grieving family. Sunak is not some unfeeling sociopath, just a numbers guy who has reached the top of politics seemingly without developing either the gifted politician’s ability to see round corners, or the more human knack of quickly reading a room. But his clumsiness around Esther Ghey accidentally reveals a rather broader weakness in Conservative strategy.

No politician cracking a cheap joke can ever know quite who is listening, not just in the room itself – and don’t forget the Tory MP Jamie Wallis recently came out as trans – but in the world beyond. It is a heavy responsibility to carry, but that’s the job. Anything Sunak says publicly about an issue some Tories clearly want to weaponise will be heard by other parents of trans children and trans people themselves, as well as the already transphobic seeking confirmation of their prejudices. As it happened, Brianna’s mother hadn’t yet taken her seat in the gallery when that line was delivered. But if she hadn’t come to Westminster at all that day and had only read about it afterwards, would that have magically removed the sting? If it’s wrong to say such things to her face, why is it acceptable to do so to people you can’t see?

Ghey’s call for empathy for the parents of her daughter’s killers – who have, she points out, also in a sense lost children – has been intensely moving, and towards the end of PMQs Sunak said he admired her compassion and humanity. Well, how could anyone not? But equally striking has been her ability to put a very human face on a public conversation about trans rights that can in abstract easily become heartless. Something about her obvious love for, and unhesitating acceptance of, her daughter makes many people think twice not just about the language they use around her, but perhaps about one or two other assumptions, too.

In the way they talk about Brianna, the entire Ghey family has shown us an idea of trans people that isn’t often conveyed in public: not ostracised, but surrounded by people who loved her. Not freakish or somehow shameful, but recognisable in her vulnerability to any parent of teenagers trying to find their way. Much as the family of the MP Jo Cox did after her murder, by meeting hate with love, the Gheys have ensured their daughter is not merely remembered for the awful way she died, but for the values by which her family clearly live. That is an extraordinary achievement in the midst of grief, and it offers the kind of rare, galvanising moment in public life to which all political parties could have responded in kind, by quietly undertaking not to exploit an obviously sensitive issue for electoral gain.

That doesn’t mean leaders can’t talk about trans rights, given it’s an issue of legitimate public interest, or be asked searching questions about policy – including how Starmer got from his 2021 view (supportive of self-identification for trans people, and insistent that it’s “not right” to say only women can have a cervix), to his 2023 position, that self-ID isn’t happening and a woman is an adult human female. Voters deserve clarity on something with serious implications not just for trans people, but all those anxious about women’s legal rights to single-sex spaces, say, or fairness in sport. But it’s precisely because these are serious questions that they deserve to be handled responsibly.

That means not making transness the punchline of a bad joke, any more than you would race or gender. It means no gratuitous sideswipes or spuriously dragging it into every unrelated political attack, and generally not inflicting unnecessary drive-by pain on people who are non-combatants in this election. Wasn’t Sunak’s whole point supposed to be that there’s an embarrassment of broken Labour pledges to choose from? So choose some. Just don’t break something more precious in the process.

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