Chuka Umunna Interview: 'There's No Skeleton In My Closet'

​He was the handsome, well-dressed heir to Blair and Labour's great new hope. But after some bruising political defeats and the left wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, is centrist Chuka Umunna​ already a man out of time? Bobby Friedman talks to him about the death of his father, getting married and the second leadership bid many are still expecting

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David Cameron once taunted Tony Blair by telling Labour's then Prime Minister that he "was the future once". For a time, Chuka Umunna seemed to be Labour's next great hope. He was young, charismatic and appealed to both left and right.

But fast forward a couple of years and some are questioning whether Umunna's political career already lies more in the past than the future. While he remains one of Labour's most recognisable MPs, he's suffered two embarrassments in quick succession. First, pulling out of last year's leadership contest and then, earlier this week, coming a miserable third in the election to become the Chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

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The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has seen Labour shift to the left, and that could present a problem for a politician schooled in the centrist politics of the decades either side of the millennium. "I don't like being pigeon-holed," he tells me with feeling. "I have multiple identities, never mind ethnically but in other respects…and it's even worse when they try to do it by reference to other people. This stupid term, 'Blairite', that gets used in the Labour Party as a form of abuse, in spite of the fact this guy won three elections. How dare you try and define me by reference to somebody else! I'm me!" he laughs. "My politics is me and we all have a different background. I hate this, 'Are you a Cameroon, Osbornite, Brownite, Corbynista?' I don't give a shit about any of that stuff. We are people with our [own] set of beliefs."

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There is much about Umunna that makes him stand out from the Westminster crowd. Few MPs would be able to speak just as fluently about the UK garage scene – music is "an obsession", he says - as they could about the challenges to social democracy in the context of globalisation. Sitting in Umunna's office, which has a view out over Parliament Square and Big Ben, we talk about his love for DJ-ing, and he laments that he has "not been on a set of decks for a long time." He's in full flow now. "I used to have these old style bell-driven [decks], before the SL1210s," he says, as I nod along without really understanding what he's on about. "The ones with the magnets in them," he ventures. Nope, me neither. "I'm old school: I've still got all my vinyl at home," he tells me.

But his love for music is genuine, and, much as Umunna has a rep for being a little bit too smooth, I can't help but get the feeling that he's sincere in what he does. "I don't even see it as a job, it's a mission what we do. I don't think you can really call it a career," he explains.

Was Umunna always set on getting to the top? "I wasn't one of those people who had some grand plan to become Prime Minister," he tells me. "I'm a normal person. When I was being foolish in my twenties, when I was at university, I wasn't thinking I was going to become an MP. There is a life outside."

He was, however, inspired to go into politics by his father, who died in a car crash when Umunna was 13. "It's extraordinary in a way," he says. "He was around for about one-third of my life, but has had such an impact on all of it." "My dad was this pint-sized Nigerian with an oversized personality. My mother is a tall six foot something Irish-English woman. Us walking down the street was quite an unusual sight, when I was growing up."

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Although Umunna's family was well-off, he cites seeing the inequality of 1980s south London as a key driver for his political beliefs. He was out shopping with his mother when they were "stuck in the middle of the first Brixton riot". Also important was a childhood trip to Nigeria, where he saw the poverty of his father's village. He didn't "study texts of Marx or whatever," he explains. "For me my politics and my values are very practical. I'm not doctrinaire." Umunna says that, if anything, his values are "Christian": he was at one time a regular Church-goer, like Theresa May. Now, though, "I don't pray every day".

Umunna was elected as an MP in 2010, and during his first five years in Parliament, things went swimmingly. Within months of winning his seat in Streatham, he'd been appointed as the then-Labour leader Ed Miliband's principal private secretary. A little over a year into the job, he was elevated to the Shadow Cabinet, as Shadow Business Secretary. He was still only 32. Perhaps it was too much, too soon. "I got promoted very very quickly, and maybe I got promoted too quickly," he reflects. "Sometimes I didn't have time to take stock and take a breath and reference back to why I stood for election."

With his star rising so quickly, it was unsurprising that it ended up burning too brightly. When Miliband resigned after the 2015 election, Umunna threw his hat into the ring for the leadership. Within three days, he'd changed his mind and pulled out of the race, saying he was uncomfortable with the "scrutiny" and "attention". Inevitably, there was speculation that Umunna was worried about the tabloids raking over his personal life. That's not true, he insists. "You don't run for the leadership, in fact you don't join the shadow cabinet if you have loads of skeletons in the closet. Now people see that there wasn't [a skeleton]."

Did he mind the rumours that inevitably followed? "When I was Shadow Business Secretary I made a decision at that point I wouldn't talk about the rest of my life in interviews." He supposes that "it added to the intrigue. You just want to protect people around you. You accept in politics, I was a late 30-something single bloke, you know there's going to be all kind of rumours that you're a playboy, and all these things." I'm not sure those were the sorts of rumours that people were talking about, but I see his point. He has since married his wife, the lawyer Alice Sullivan, which has put matters to bed, as it were.

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So what was the real reason for pulling out? Umunna says he withdrew to protect Alice and the rest of his family. In particular, he was shocked that the press managed to track down his sister in Denmark, although this strikes me as a little naïve. Umunna himself admits that his campaign was ill-equipped for what lay in store. Going into the General Election, "I wasn't preparing to run a leadership campaign if truth be told. I was preparing to run a government department," he says. Umunna "didn't have the operation that was able to deal with" the scrutiny on his family, he admits. If he'd been more battle-ready, he thinks he could have managed the press. "You live and learn," he says.

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The good news for anyone who fancies seeing Umunna in Downing Street is that his experience hasn't put him off having another go. "I'd never say never. If I ever did do something like that again, you'd be much better prepared." That might give heart to some of the more fervent opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, who see Umunna as a realistic challenger to the Labour leader before the 2020 election – even if the poor results in the Select Committee election, and the abortive leadership bid first time around might suggest otherwise.

Umunna is, though, a much more compelling candidate than the last man who tried and failed to unseat Corbyn, Owen Smith. But will he do it? "The leadership issue in the Labour Party is settled, I really don't think everybody wants another bloody contest right now," he argues. I ask him whether that means the issue is settled until 2020. His answer is hardly the unequivocal confirmation that Corbyn would doubtless like. "I think it's settled, I think it's settled," he tells me. "I don't really see it being on the horizon for some time. How long that is depends if we win a General Election. Who knows when the General Election is going to come?" I'll put that down as a "maybe".

Umunna insists that he and Corbyn get on perfectly well, although he's never been a member of the current leader's Shadow Cabinet. Umunna's omission is noticeable, and there have been various accounts of what went on there. It turns out that the question was settled by Umunna in a phone conversation outside a south London fast food joint.

"It was quite surreal," Umunna tells me. "We were celebrating a close family friend's birthday. I was in a pub in south London. I hadn't had a call or anything. I got the call from one of Jeremy's people saying, 'Jeremy would like to have a chat with you. Here's here with me'. I said, 'fine'. So I walked out the pub and stood outside the chicken shop next to the pub and had the conversation."

The big issue that divided Corbyn and Umunna was Europe. While Umunna headed the Labour In movement in London – "We won in London and got the highest Remain vote in the country in my own local authority area", he tells me proudly – Corbyn has been criticised for a lacklustre campaign. Umunna's view was that, "we had to have a completely unequivocal policy that we would be campaigning to stay in the European Union in the forthcoming referendum campaign regardless of the renegotiation the Prime Minister was going to carry out." Corbyn "did not have that view for different reasons, and I couldn't live with that." It's perhaps no surprise that Corbyn didn't throw himself into the referendum campaign with unrestricted vigour, if that was his starting point.

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According to Umunna, it was a no-fault divorce, although he "was never offered a job" by Corbyn. "It was a mutually agreed thing", he says. "It was a very pleasant conversation. I didn't walk out of Shadow Cabinet in that sense. Maybe you could say I was sacked, but I'm not sure I'd describe it as that…It was just a very practical thing."

If Umunna talks benignly about his leader, the same can't be said of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who he says, "often stands in the way of us having a degree of unity in the party". Umunna claims that McDonnell "went around saying I'd resigned. He wasn't on the call with Jeremy…He can go and say what he wants and lie about the circumstances of it, but in the end we had a very pleasant conversation."

For now, Umunna has to make do with the backbenches, and he'll remain on the Home Affairs Select Committee, despite losing out on the top job. It's been a busy time for the cross-party group, which published a report into anti-Semitism last week. To what extent was Corbyn responsible for the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the Labour Party? "I don't think it would be fair to hold one individual responsible for all of the actions of others or some of their support base," Umunna tells me, choosing his words carefully. Nonetheless, "there are some who feel empowered to say things that they wouldn't have said before, following the change in the leadership of the party, that they feel they can say now." Umunna also places the blame on the proliferation of social media use, and companies like Twitter, who he says need to do more.

What about Shami Chakrabarti, whose supposedly independent report on anti-Semitism in Labour was soon followed by a peerage and an appointment to the Shadow Cabinet? He pauses to think. "It's a shame in a way," he says. Chakrabarti has been a "wonderful advocate for human rights in our country, the primary advocate of human rights sometimes it seems, for the best part of the last decade. I just think it's a shame the way in which she's become part of the Labour Party has been used to obscure that wonderful record."

Umunna is at pains to talk about his role in two EU-focused organisations, Vote Leave Watch and Open Britain. Even so, I get the sense that, unless matters improve in the Labour Party, Umunna could be tempted to leave the House of Commons altogether. "I still feel a bit of a stranger here. I'm not a natural creature of Parliament," he tells me. "I'm not a chamber person who loves this place and wants to be here for several decades. I went into politics for that slightly romantic goal of trying to change the world for as many people as possible, but recognise the window to do that is not the longest window in the world, and it's not the only thing in my life."

There certainly is plenty going on outside of Westminster. Since his marriage to Alice, Umunna is "happier in the rest of my life". I wonder out loud whether he finds the life of a politician somewhat limiting. Doesn't this former regular of the London club scene wish he could go out, get drunk and go clubbing until the small hours? "When I was first elected, maybe I felt a bit restricted in that sense," he admits. "Now I don't, I'm married, I'm settled. I don't mean to sound like an old man but we haven't got the energy anymore."

So what would be a typical date night? "It's so boring, it's so boring," he jokes (sorry, Alice). "Our favourite thing is: Friday night, you're knackered, you've been working all the hours God sends in the week, it's just a nice glass of red, Sandy and Sandra on Gogglebox, and we're quite partial to Domino's pizza… my wife is going to kill me," he laughs. It's all a change from the garage music scene. "It's really like that these days," he assures me. "Just chilling out together. That's my perfect Friday night. Is that sad? What the hell's happened to me?" We sound like we're conducting a post-mortem. "When did the change happen?" I ask. "Don't get me wrong, we like going out and catching up with mates," he assures me. "But that's a typical Friday night".

If Umunna has come of age in his personal life, his political future is still uncertain. At the age of just 38 – it was his birthday on Monday – he's a political big beast before many of his contemporaries have even been elected to Parliament. A much more accomplished performer than Jeremy Corbyn, and a far more moderate figure, I get the distinct impression that he's ready for the leadership – even if he says he doesn't want it, for now. Only time will tell if the Labour Party is ready for him.