British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declined on Thursday to apologise for a gender identity jibe at opposition leader Keir Starmer, which drew criticism in the light of the widely reported recent murder of a transgender girl.

Sunak's Conservatives, trailing badly in opinion polls ahead of an election this year, have increasingly sought to weaponise identity politics and cast the Labour Party as excessively liberal or "woke".

On Wednesday, Sunak said Labour's leader had changed course on "defining a woman", during a parliamentary exchange that the mother of the murdered girl, Brianna Ghey, had been invited to watch.

Sunak's team said the prime minister had been trying to illustrate how Labour had changed its mind on major policies.

However, political opponents immediately accused Sunak of insensitively exploiting a family tragedy. Ghey's father told Sky News he had been shocked and felt Sunak should apologise.

Asked about his comments, Sunak told reporters: "I've nothing but the most heartfelt sympathy for her entire family and friends.

"But to use that tragedy to detract from the very separate and clear point I was making about Keir Starmer's proven track record of multiple U-turns on major policies because he doesn't have a plan, I think, is both sad and wrong, and it demonstrates the worst of politics."

Asked a second time, he said his remarks were "absolutely legitimate" in the political context.

(Reporting by William James; editing by Elizabeth Piper and Kevin Liffey)