Rishi Sunak's trans jibe is not the only time he's shown why he's unfit to be Prime Minister – Stewart McDonald
In his 2020 speech to Conservative party conference, then Chancellor Rishi Sunak stood in front of the public and tried to let the spirit of Benjamin Franklin flow through him as he thanked the crowd for sticking by the party throughout the pandemic. “You, the people, have been with us,” he told them.
For a party that loves to sweat over pronouns, one might have expected someone – anyone – to point out that the United States Constitution opens with a slightly different wording. But that syntactical slip – between “we, the people” and “you, the people” – was not a one-off mistake. It was a glimpse through the lens through which the UK Prime Minister views the country he leads.
From chortling to a television camera about having “no working-class friends” as a young man to asking a homeless man spending Christmas Eve in a shelter if he worked in business, Sunak has never been able to even fake a connection with the majority of the public. To him, they are an abstraction: the governed.
We saw this during an extraordinary exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions this week where Sunak read out a scripted gag, pre-written by his media advisor, making fun of British citizens. It was an attempt at a joke about a tiny, powerless minority of UK citizens who are disproportionately more likely than their fellow citizens to be bullied, assaulted, raped, and denied employment. To him, of course, this wasn’t a joke about actual people – not like the ones he knows. It was a joke about transgender people who, to him, exist only in newspaper columns and social media spats.
Trans Tory MP forced to sit through jeers
It was wondered last year if Jamie Wallis, the Conservative MP for Bridgend, coming out as transgender would soften the UK Government’s attitude towards LGBT people. Of course, it hasn’t. Not only is the government completely cut off and unrepresentative of the country at large, they don’t even speak to their own backbenchers.
Even after Jamie’s bravery in coming out, the jokes and jibes from his boss have continued. Can you imagine how it must have felt to sit there, as the Prime Minister rounds on transgender people, whilst your colleagues who you share the green benches with cackle along and jeer with him? It’s utterly grotesque.
This week, however, was different. The mother of Brianna Ghey, a young transgender girl whose murder horrified the country, was in Parliament on Wednesday. She was in the building when the Prime Minister made his cheap, callous and crass joke about people like her late daughter, as Keir Starmer was quick to point out. As Starmer did so, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been so quick to condemn the Prime Minster had there not been such a viewer in the gallery. I don’t think so.
Sunak’s £1,000 Rwanda bet
The incident at PMQs, however, was not Sunak’s only recent slip-up. Just days before he trotted out his pre-written line about transgender people as Brianna Ghey’s mother visited the Commons, Sunak stuck out his hand to Piers Morgan and agreed to gamble £1,000 on the fates of refugees. It was an appalling error of judgment.
First, we have a Prime Minster willing to stake his private money on the implementation of government programmes – a prima facie breach of the need to separate public and private interests outlined in the Nolan Principles of Public Life. Then we have a Prime Minister wealthy enough to dish out £1,000 to anyone who surprises him, and one slow enough on his feet that even Morgan could manage to achieve that. Above all, it displays the same pathology that has defined his political career: a congenital inability to understand that his policies have the potential to shape and even transform the lives of individual human beings the length and breadth of this country. It’s not a quality we want to see in a Prime Minister.
Sunak later told the press he was “caught by surprise” and “not a betting person”, something later exposed on social media as a lie by those who uncovered a recent BBC interview where he spoke about his dalliance with matched betting. He also refused this week to rule out bringing Boris Johnson back into Cabinet as he acknowledged he was an "election winner" – a fool’s gambit if ever there was one. So much for the centrist pivot that David Cameron’s return was supposed to represent.
Inept and weak
Readers will note that Northern Ireland’s new Executive is now up and running, with a nationalist First Minister and a unionist Deputy First Minister talking of a new dawn and governing for all. They showed leadership and stepped out of their respective traditions to bring that small part of the world together to write a new future. Sunak would do well to fire his advisers and instead take a lesson from the new leaders in Stormont.
What this week demonstrated is that we have a Prime Minister who is alarmingly incapable of thinking on his feet. We have a Prime Minster willing to say things and agree to things he does not believe because he thinks some audience, whether a real one in front of him or an imagined one deep in the country, wants to hear it. We have a Prime Minister so inept that he cannot even deliver a pre-prepared gag without making a fool of himself.
What is now obvious is that we have a Prime Minister who is genuinely incapable of leading with empathy, compassion and respect for all citizens. From laughing about having no working-class friends to making light of a marginalised group already facing discrimination and violence, Sunak's actions paint a clear picture of who he is: someone out of touch with citizens and unconcerned with human dignity. These are not the qualities of a man fit to be Prime Minister.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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