Keir Starmer's U-turns may cause more lasting political damage than Rishi Sunak's trans jibe – Christine Jardine
When the Prime Minister approached the despatch box with his handy list of well-rehearsed ripostes, he was probably confident he was prepared for whatever attack the leader of the Opposition threw his way. But it wasn’t the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate that tripped him up. It was real life.
What followed Prime Minister’s Questions was less about issues of the day and political positioning, more about simple sensitivity and awareness of the moment. I am convinced that Rishi Sunak did not intend to hurt, offend or in any way add to the unfathomable pain of the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey.
Something in the way he delivered what he thought was his coup de grace about the Labour leader’s policy flip-flopping tells me that, even as he spoke, he was oblivious to the implications of his words. Across the chamber, however, there was an almost audible realisation that the Prime Minister had made a misjudgment of unimaginable proportions. On the day Brianna Ghey’s mother was in parliament, Sunak used the transgender controversy as a punchline.
Embarrassment and anger
I am not entirely sure that the leader of the Opposition’s response was ideal either. Even if I give him credit for being taken aback, there was, for me, too much of a hint of exploitation of the moment in his chastising of the Prime Minister before carrying on with his questions.
Even when the opportunity to apologise was offered, none was forthcoming. For those of us watching, or participating, there was a mixture of embarrassment, discomfort and anger over the political and personal disaster that was unfolding.
We are well used to ill-tempered arguments, mudslinging and bad language in the House. I wish this wasn’t the case. But this was something different. Something which forced us all, particularly those on the government benches, to decide whether to let our emotions or tribal loyalties dictate our reactions.
Judging by the faces I could see and conversations afterwards, emotion and common respect for a grieving mother were felt across the House. That emotion was certainly heightened by Elliot Coburn MP who courageously opened up about their own personal challenges which resulted in a suicide attempt.
He spoke of his family and the care provided to him afterwards, all to draw awareness to the need for greater support for those vulnerable or contemplating suicide. He raised the level of discussion, reminding us of the power we have and the need to use it correctly.
The problems the Prime Minister created for himself overflowed into the rest of the week, with a private meeting hastily arranged to try to repair the damage and a steady stream of loyal ministers paraded to defend him. But ironically he was not alone in facing fallout. Sunak’s remarks about flip-flopping followed Keir Starmer through the weekend after his party abandoned their two-year commitment to a £28 billion investment in green projects.
Neither leader goes into this week’s recess basking in glory. But somehow I am haunted by the thought that when the country eventually gets to vote for their next Prime Minister, however much we may all have recoiled from that lapse in the chamber, it will be the flip-flopping allegations which hold most sway.
Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West
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