(Chuka Umunna, member of British parliament, Streatham, south London constituency)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.
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.
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.