Dan Hodges

Chuka Umunna was the victim of an old-fashioned Westminster character assassination

Chuka Umunna was the victim of an old-fashioned Westminster character assassination
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A few months after Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader I met with one of his supporters in the shadow cabinet. Who, I asked, were 'Ed’s People?' He began reeling off a list of names. 'Chuka Umunna, Peter Hain, John…' 'Chuka?' I said. 'But he’s walking round the Commons with a giant target on his back. They’re out to get him.' He was, even then, the bookies’ favourite – which, in politics, normally means that you are a dead man walking. The shadow minister smiled. 'Well, they haven’t got him yet.'

Well, now they have. Umunna has finally been cut down, withdrawing from Labour’s leadership race just three days after entering. There was no proper reason, and no proper scandal. He was the victim of an elegant, silent old-fashioned Westminster character assassination.

For some it wasn’t personal, just business. Umunna was a candidate for Labour leader, and there were other people who wanted to be leader. So the whispers started. 'Chuka isn’t going to run,' I was told by a trade union official back in March. 'Personal issues.' He smiled, and tapped the side of his nose. A former Minister had heard it too. 'The word is "Chuka’s out". He won’t even enter.' Again, 'personal issues' were cited.

The briefings became so intense that at the Daily Telegraph we discussed whether or not to run a story about them. But we decided that, if we did so, we’d become part of the spin operation. Umunna had been on what is called 'a journey'. He had been a member of Compass, the anti-Blairite think tank run by former Gordon Brown aide Neal Lawson. Then, as his parliamentary ambitions looked like bearing fruit, he began building bridges with the Blairites. He angered them again by endorsing Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership, then he angered Team Ed by keeping his distance as the project began to unravel.

To some, this was evidence that Umunna possessed acute political antenna. To others, it was evidence of his being an untrustworthy chameleon. At the start of last year, in a sign of the direction the wind was blowing, the Blairite think-tank Progress switched its allegiance to Dan Jarvis.

Umunna also frequently harmed himself through his clumsy interaction with fellow Labour MPs. Despite his image as an ambitious sophisticate, he can be a quite introspective and sensitive man. And not very good at making friends with his northern colleagues. 'A couple of us were at a reception,' one MP told me, 'and Chuka turned up. And it was all "what are you couple of northern rogues doing here! Bet you’re up to no good!”. We just looked at him and said “actually, we’re just having a drink”'. His attempt to ‘speak northern’ had backfired.

There was also the unspoken issue of Ummuna’s race. While the parliamentary Labour party is robustly progressive in political terms, it can also be quite culturally conservative. Umunna would frequently find himself the only non-white face in the room. This at a time when a number of Labour MPs were demanding a much tougher line on immigration to help stop their supporters defecting to Ukip. Labour MPs would openly ask one another whether Britain was quite ‘ready’ for a black Prime Minister. While he never faced anything remotely resembling overt prejudice, the sense of remoteness identified by several of Umunna’s critics was explained by more than just his arrogance.

And there was one other reason that Chuka colleagues felt he had to be swiftly taken out of the contest for Labour leader: the unwritten rules of Westminster demanded it. When he first arrived at the member’s entrance of the House of Commons, he carried far too much baggage for a freshman MP. He had already been dubbed 'Britain’s Obama'. One magazine had already run a feature on how he would save the world. Within twelve months he had been appointed to the shadow cabinet. All of which went against the natural order of political accession and succession.

'You do know what all the MPs think of him, don’t you?' one shadow cabinet minister once asked me. 'They all hate him.' 'Why do they hate him?' I asked. 'Basically, because they’re jealous of him.' So there is no great mystery to the fall of Chuka Umunna. By entering the Labour leadership contest he did the one thing he could not afford to do - placed his political future in the hands of his colleagues. And they casually disposed of it.

There is not necessarily anything improper or tragic in any of this. If you look at that scratchy video Umunna produced to launch his campaign, it was a recognition of his disadvantages. The footage of his glad-handing of the defeated Labour candidates was an admission that he needs to be more collegiate. His decision to film the video in Swindon – a whole 80 miles away from Westminster - hinted that he realised the concerns about his reach outside the M25.

So in a sense, the system of scrutiny worked. The whispers. The re-scheduled meetings. The unreturned phone-calls. If he could not survive more than 72 hours of a Labour leadership contest (and the nastiness that comes with it) he was clearly nowhere near ready for the ordeal of a run at Downing Street. Those who questioned the breaches of the iron laws of succession were ultimately vindicated. 'I’m gutted,' one of his small band of shadow cabinet supporters told me on Thursday, 'but I also believe Chuka still has a huge contribution to make to the Labour party.' And now the natural order of things has been restored, perhaps he does.