Stuck in the mid­dle with Chu

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - In­ter­view by Tim Lewis Por­traits by Jooney Wood­ward

MP Chuka Umunna was Labour’s next leader in wait­ing; so what’s he got planned for his next move?

Hand­some, am­bi­tious, ur­bane: four years ago, Chuka Umunna was all set to be the next leader of the Labour Party — Bri­tain’s Obama, our Macron, our Trudeau. But he pulled out of the lead­er­ship con­test in 2015 and he's been in the wilder­ness ever since, a lonely lib­eral cen­trist left be­hind by a po­larised Par­lia­ment. Is there a way back for the for­mer fu­ture of British pol­i­tics?

And will it take the na­tion col­laps­ing un­der Brexit for his star to rise again? “let me show you some­thing, man,” says Chuka Umunna, the 39-year-old Labour politi­cian, strid­ing up Brix­ton Hill in south Lon­don. He stops out­side a big, win­dow­less slab of a build­ing, with an old-style cin­ema awning, now called the Elec­tric Brix­ton. “Did you ever used to go to the Fridge?”

My pol­icy in such cir­cum­stances is to lie, claim more knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence than I have, but some­thing about an MP quizzing me on my club­bing his­tory catches me of­f­guard. I re­ply no, I did not ever go to the Fridge. Umunna’s hand­some face seems to crum­ple just a lit­tle, but he launches into a pot­ted his­tory of the venue, a land­mark for New Ro­man­tic music, the pu­ta­tive site of the first “chill out” room and long­time home to sem­i­nal gay night, Love Mus­cle.

“This you’ve got to see,” Umunna con­tin­ues, bound­ing on a few steps. Half­way up the wall, be­tween the alarm and a se­cu­rity light, is a black plaque the size of a din­ner plate: “Soul II Soul first gigged live here in 1991,” it reads. He stares into the mid­dle dis­tance. Soul II

Soul was Umunna’s first live con­cert, aged 13, up the road at Brix­ton Academy and he con­sid­ers theirs the “quin­tes­sen­tial” British soul sound, so original and in­fec­tious that it took on Amer­ica’s best and won a pair of Gram­mys. Un­veil­ing the plaque in 2012, with the band’s leader Jazzie B in at­ten­dance, is one of his gid­di­est mo­ments as a politi­cian. Then, as he does today, he talked with blaz­ing eyes about how Soul II Soul were nom­i­nated for five Brits in 1990 and 1991 and came away with none. Jazzie B looked on, san­guine. The Mobo awards, Umunna notes, were partly set up to cor­rect this in­jus­tice.

When­ever a politi­cian pro­fesses a fond­ness for a par­tic­u­lar music act, it of­ten feels sus­pect, like a team of ad­vi­sors and an al­go­rithm have been en­gaged. But on this Fri­day morn­ing in early June, one is left in no doubt: Chuka Umunna re­ally likes Soul II Soul.

Umunna’s tour of Brix­ton keeps on movin’. He points out the route Nel­son Man­dela took in July 1996, on his first state visit to Bri­tain as South Africa’s Pres­i­dent. The crowd was ten­deep and Umunna re­mem­bers he heard word that morn­ing and broke off re­vis­ing for his A-lev­els to at­tend. Then he ges­tures down the road at the rail­way bridge. That’s where he was in April 1981, just as the first Brix­ton riot kicked off. He was two-and-a-half at the time, his sis­ter one, and his mother had to gather them and the shop­ping in her arms and run.

“I don’t have any me­mory of it, but my mum, my god, the sto­ries she tells,” says Umunna. “There was a fever­ish at­mos­phere, there’d been lots of prob­lems with the po­lice up to that point, com­mu­nity re­la­tions were in a ter­ri­ble place. And this one guy said, ‘Lady, you want to take your kids with you, and get out of here fast.’”

Today’s itin­er­ary — which in­cludes a school visit and some lo­cal cam­paign­ing for a Peo­ple’s Vote (most def­i­nitely not a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, oh no) on what­ever Brexit deal is agreed by the Con­ser­va­tive Gov­ern­ment — has been sug­gested by Umunna’s of­fice, and it’s not hard to see why. He grew up round here and now, as the Labour MP for Streatham, he rep­re­sents the peo­ple he has lived along­side his whole life. Later, when we’re in his car, a VW Golf with a child seat and sun shade in the back for his one-year-old daugh­ter, he re­flects, “I think that does make a big dif­fer­ence in terms of how you feel about a place. I don’t have to put the GPS on to know where I’m go­ing in my con­stituency.”

In fact, the ex­cur­sion is not that dif­fer­ent from the tour Umunna gave Will Smith in March 2013. Umunna met Smith at a party, when the ac­tor was chap­er­on­ing his son Jaden, a rap­per, who was ap­pear­ing with Justin Bieber on tour. Umunna sug­gested that, if Smith grew tired of five-star ho­tels, he might like to see “Lon­don’s Har­lem”. To his sur­prise, Smith agreed and a cou­ple of days later they were walk­ing the streets with the late Tessa Jow­ell, an­other lo­cal MP. They made a sur­prise drop-in at a lo­cal girls’ high school and there’s fan­tas­tic, au­then­ti­cally blurry footage as Smith starts singing The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme and the room de­scends into bed­lam. Umunna, dressed in a suit with a mauve tie, emerged with huge credit: there’s a cou­ple of se­conds when Smith starts rap­ping where you imag­ine Umunna’s think­ing, “Is this go­ing to sand­bag my ca­reer for­ever?” But then his shoul­ders be­gin rolling and he pulls off the no-mean-feat of danc­ing in a suit and not look­ing like your dad at a wed­ding.

“I tell you, I’ve never seen any­thing like it,” Umunna re­calls of his day as a tour guide for Smith. “Grown men in their six­ties be­hav­ing like school chil­dren. Ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

In some ways, it couldn’t — and wouldn’t — get any better than this for Umunna. He was 34, shadow busi­ness sec­re­tary, one of the big­gest jobs in the Labour Party, and trusted lieu­tenant to the leader Ed Miliband. He was that most rare of politi­cians: some­how he could be all things to all peo­ple, what­ever your party lean­ings. His fa­ther was a Nige­rian im­mi­grant; his An­glo-Ir­ish mother came from a sto­ried line of QCs, not least her fa­ther who had been a prose­cu­tor at the Nurem­berg tri­als. He went to a fee-pay­ing sec­ondary school; he also worked on a mar­ket stall at week­ends and in the box of­fice at Crys­tal Palace FC. At uni­ver­sity, he weighed up be­com­ing ei­ther an em­ploy­ment lawyer or a DJ. Umunna had im­pec­ca­ble left­ist cre­den­tials, but his pro­nounce­ments on busi­ness and wealth cre­ation would not flus­ter most Tory vot­ers. In the press, he was of­ten com­pared to Barack Obama; one pro­file even noted that their names had iden­ti­cal syl­la­ble counts.

‘Pol­i­tics is ter­ri­bly old-fash­ioned. Both main par­ties are reach­ing for old so­lu­tions to to­mor­row’s prob­lems’

And Umunna just looked and felt right: the kind of mod­ern, trans­for­ma­tive politi­cian you would sketch out if given a blank sheet of pa­per. He was a slick, ar­tic­u­late and charis­matic so­cial demo­crat, fierce in de­bates and flu­ent in new me­dia. He could come across as a bit too pol­ished, his de­trac­tors al­ways noted, al­most like he ac­tu­ally had been sketched from a blank sheet of pa­per. But still, it seemed his destiny to steer his party, to run this coun­try.

Five years on, though, the fresh prince has not be­come king. As falls from grace go, it’s been a sober­ing one. He is cur­rently a back­bencher in the House of Com­mons with no of­fi­cial re­mit. Not only is his party not in power, but he seems to have few in­flu­en­tial friends and no de­fend­ers any more. He did flirt with a lead­er­ship bid in 2015, but that im­mo­lated within 72 hours, amid whis­pers that he must have some kind of de­viant past. Al­most overnight, we de­cided that we wanted un­flashy, con­vic­tion politi­cians (Jeremy Cor­byn), not smooth, metropoli­tan ones (Tony Blair, David Cameron).

Umunna is mainly heard from these days as an out­spo­ken anti-Brexit talk­ing head, a “Re­moaner” in Faragese. From look­ing like a politi­cian who could bridge the chasm be­tween left and right, he’s cho­sen a bleak hill to die on: the most weari­some, hope­less and di­vi­sive topic of our times. So what went wrong for Chuka Umunna? And does he have a strat­egy or even the de­sire to put it right? an amaz­ing wife and not ev­ery­one has that. My close mates al­ways laugh at me be­cause I say I’m blessed, but I don’t know what I did to de­serve it. And this is an ex­tra­or­di­nary job, you have a lot of these mo­ments when you pinch your­self. You never wake up on a Mon­day morn­ing think­ing, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go to work today.’ It doesn’t re­ally work like that.”

And, in south Lon­don at least, Umunna re­mains lit­tle short of a cult fig­ure. When he first con­tested the Streatham seat in 2010, it looked in dan­ger of be­ing stolen; Labour squeaked through with a ma­jor­ity of 3,000. Af­ter five years, Umunna had al­most quin­tu­pled that fig­ure to nearly 14,000. Last time out, in June 2017, he stretched the gap to 26,285, win­ning a Putin-es­que share of the votes cast. Umunna de­flects some of the credit to Jeremy Cor­byn and to Brexit: Lam­beth, the bor­ough in which both Brix­ton and Streatham fall, voted 78.6 per cent to stay in the Euro­pean Union, the high­est fig­ure in the bal­lot of any­where ex­cept for Gi­bral­tar.

Still, there don’t seem to be many peo­ple round here who don’t know who he is and broadly what he stands for. And he’s a nat­u­ral, in­stinc­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tor: whether it’s talk­ing to teenagers at the school (“It’s a ridicu­lous, non­sense spec­ta­cle,” he says of Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tions, “but it’s the big­gest event in pol­i­tics. It’s box of­fice”) or charm­ing the old dears out­side Brix­ton tube sta­tion (“Brexit is not go­ing to solve the causes of Brexit”). “It’s a peo­ple job, I love it,” Umunna ex­plains. “On the street stuff, I’d much rather do this all day than sit on the green benches in some long-winded de­bate. The funny thing is I get sur­prised by how many peo­ple don’t in this job.”

If Umunna can some­times seem like a shapeshifter, then he thinks his un­usual back­ground and up­bring­ing are re­spon­si­ble. His mother, Pa­tri­cia, was well to do, but half-Ir­ish, so she never qual­i­fied as posh. She worked as a pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer. His fa­ther Ben­nett Umunna, mean­while, ar­rived in the Liver­pool docks from Nige­ria in 1964, car­ry­ing his suit­case on his head, ba­si­cally pen­ni­less. He washed plates in the kitchens of a South African di­a­mond-min­ing com­pany and learned to cook English food; he cleaned lim­ou­sines and then sat in the back and stud­ied for his busi­ness and ac­coun­tancy ex­ams. Even­tu­ally, he ran a suc­cess­ful im­port-ex­port op­er­a­tion be­tween Nige­ria and the UK. Pa­tri­cia and Ben­nett met at a party in Lon­don in the Sev­en­ties; she was 6ft 1in, he was a frac­tion over 5ft. But they clicked and Chuka (which rhymes with “cooker”) was born on 17 Oc­to­ber, 1978.

Ben­nett’s busi­ness did well, and when they weren’t happy with Umunna’s state pri­mary school — “The sys­tem in Lam­beth then had a ter­ri­ble record of dis­crim­i­nat­ing against black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic kids, writ­ing them off, stereo­typ­ing them, and the same thing hap­pened to me” — they moved him to the fee-pay­ing St Dun­stan’s Col­lege in Cat­ford, south Lon­don. He played the cello and was a cho­ris­ter at South­wark Cathe­dral. But then, in 1992, when Umunna was 13, Ben­nett died. A few weeks ear­lier, he had stood for the gov­er­nor­ship of Anam­bra State in Nige­ria with a prom­ise to wipe out cor­rup­tion. He lost and then not long af­ter­wards a truck car­ry­ing logs crashed into the car in which he was trav­el­ling. Noth­ing was ever proved but there were strong sus­pi­cions of foul play: the in­ci­dent hap­pened at night and Ben­nett didn’t have his usual driver. “There’s been quite a lot of spec­u­la­tion in terms of the cir­cum­stances of my fa­ther’s death, whether he’d been as­sas­si­nated,” says Umunna. “The truth is we’ll never know.”

Has Umunna tried to find out what hap­pened? “Well, it’s not go­ing to bring him back, is it?” he replies. “The way things were in Nige­ria then… If some­body died un­der du­bi­ous cir­cum­stances here, there would be a full-on po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, foren­sics, and that is not how it was in Nige­ria at that time. So we re­ally just con­cen­trated on try­ing to re­build our lives.”

Re­build­ing meant Pa­tri­cia hav­ing to qual­ify again as a so­lic­i­tor aged 46; at the week­end, the fam­ily had a mar­ket stall at Mer­ton Abbey Mills, a scaled-back ver­sion of the busi­ness Ben­nett had op­er­ated. “My mum went back to work, we all went to work,” Umunna says, with a mirth­less laugh. “It was all hands to the pump re­ally af­ter he passed away. It wasn’t an easy time or cer­tainly an af­flu­ent time.”

When you ask Umunna — as I did, as ev­ery­one does — whether he be­lieves it’s his destiny to be a party leader or even prime min­is­ter, he al­ways replies a sim­i­lar way. It never felt re­motely pos­si­ble, grow­ing up, that he could do

any­thing like that; even be­com­ing a mem­ber of par­lia­ment seemed an out­ra­geous fan­tasy. It’s a deft way of swerv­ing the ques­tion, but it makes a valid point. Back then, there were only four MPs out of 650 in the House of Com­mons from black or Asian back­grounds, peo­ple who, in Umunna’s words, “looked like me”: Labour MPs Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Diane Ab­bott and Keith Vaz were all elected for the first time in 1987. South Lon­don was not the rapidly gen­tri­fy­ing spot of today; it was the Brix­ton ri­ots and Del Boy and Rod­ney with their com­i­cal dream of be­com­ing mil­lion­aires. “I didn’t have time to do a lot of pol­i­tick­ing,” he sighs.

Ben­nett lives on in his son in ways both su­per­fi­cial and more pro­found. Umunna has been ham­mered for lik­ing nice watches, ex­pen­sive tai­lor­ing — the Mail on Sun­day frothed that his suits cost £1,200 — but for him, it is “quite an African predilec­tion”. He says, “My dad al­ways made a big thing about hav­ing well­cut suits. It’s partly a cul­tural thing, but for him, look­ing sharp and pre­sent­ing your­self well was very, very im­por­tant. And it’s partly just ar­riv­ing in the mid-Six­ties, small lit­tle black man, all the shit you have to put up with, but the first state­ment you’re mak­ing to some­body is how you ap­pear and how you look. Be­fore you’ve even opened your mouth. That was def­i­nitely passed onto me. It was a big thing, the suit.”

But Ben­nett’s life has also in­formed his ap­proach to pol­i­tics. When Umunna told his mother that he wanted to leave his job as an em­ploy­ment lawyer at the City firm Her­bert Smith Free­hills and be­come an MP, she was “not at all en­thu­si­as­tic” about the prospect. But now, he thinks that what hap­pened to his fa­ther teaches him to not take his job too se­ri­ously. “Pol­i­tics in Africa can be quite life and death, it’s pretty cut-throat,” he says. “That’s prob­a­bly com­pletely the wrong words to use, but peo­ple think it’s chal­leng­ing here, and over there it’s an­other thing al­to­gether. It can be quite dan­ger­ous, ac­tu­ally. So I sup­pose some of the non­sense here, maybe it puts it a bit in per­spec­tive.”

a week af­ter we wan­dered around Brix­ton, I meet Umunna at his of­fices in West­min­ster. He wears a slim, royal blue suit made by Alexan­dra Wood, one of the only fe­male tai­lors on Sav­ile Row. “I’ve known Ally since we were teenagers and we used to go club­bing to­gether,” says Umunna. His hair is clip­pered, cro­quet-lawn short, as it al­ways is these days. He had a flat top as a teenager, but he cut it all off when he went to law school and now he buzzes it ev­ery week. He mar­ried Alice Sul­li­van, also an em­ploy­ment lawyer, in 2016 and a pushchair idles next to his desk. Empty I should note; his daugh­ter is down­stairs in the House of Com­mons crèche. “My wife’s do­ing a big case at the mo­ment,” he says. “And so” — raised eye­brows — “the juggle.”

The fact that such a sit­u­a­tion is pos­si­ble (“I thought at one point my daugh­ter would be walk­ing around while we were do­ing this”) tells Umunna that he made the right de­ci­sion to with­draw from the lead­er­ship con­test in May 2015. It was an odd pe­riod, he re­flects now, of po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal up­heaval. Labour, un­der Ed Miliband, had just been trounced by an un­fore­seen mar­gin in the gen­eral elec­tion. Umunna had not long been dat­ing Sul­li­van. When the cou­ple ap­peared, hold­ing hands, to record the BBC’s The An­drew Marr Show, the press did what the press does. Umunna’s sis­ter was con­tacted in Den­mark, where she now lives. Pho­tog­ra­phers turned up at Sul­li­van’s par­ents’ house. “I haven’t even met him,” her dad told one reporter. “This is very early on.”

‘If we hit eco­nomic choppy wa­ters in the fu­ture, where MPs are on the is­sue of Brexit will never be for­got­ten’

Umunna an­nounced he was stand­ing, was in­stalled as favourite by the book­ies, then with­drew. This all took a lit­tle over three days. The of­fi­cial line was: “I have been sub­ject to the added level of pres­sure that comes with be­ing a lead­er­ship can­di­date. I have not found it to be a com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence.” Of course, there were plenty of un­of­fi­cial lines, too: that he was gay; that he had a druggy past; that he had rel­a­tives back in Nige­ria who were mem­bers of Boko Haram.

“Be­ing in pol­i­tics, peo­ple were like, ‘Oh was it your drug habit?’” says Umunna, smil­ing. “Or what­ever. I never had a drug habit but it was all like, ‘There must be some­thing. There must be some skele­ton in the closet!’ And I was like, ‘There re­ally isn’t.’ It’s as sim­ple as love. And want­ing to have a better-bal­anced life. I was 36 at the time. It’s a time when I feel that you’ve got the rest of your life to do stuff. But now I look back and like I said, I’m a very lucky man in­deed.”

No re­grets at all? “No!” he al­most squeals. “Not at all. Is that the wrong thing to say?”

The Cor­byn era has taken a thick red pen to Umunna’s im­mac­u­late CV. Shortly af­ter he won, the new Labour leader phoned him — Umunna hap­pened to be in a pub, so he moved out­side and took the call in front of a chicken shop — and by the end of the con­ver­sa­tion, he was no longer shadow busi­ness sec­re­tary. Umunna in­sists he nei­ther re­signed nor was fired; the pair just agreed very con­vivially in fact, be­cause of their dif­fer­ing stances on EU mem­ber­ship, to un­cou­ple.

Still when, at last year’s Labour con­fer­ence, Umunna hinted that he would, if Cor­byn asked, re­join the party’s front bench, no in­vi­ta­tion was forth­com­ing. The party has moved sharply to the left since 2015 and Umunna notes that he, and oth­ers on the cen­tre-left, are den­i­grated now as “red Tories”. He’s of­ten taunted that he should leave Labour and join the Lib­eral Democrats or the Con­ser­va­tives. This from peo­ple tech­ni­cally on his side of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide. His re­la­tion­ship with the shadow chan­cel­lor John Mc­Don­nell is es­pe­cially febrile. How about Cor­byn? “Per­son­ally, my re­la­tion­ship with him has al­ways been very good,” says Umunna. “But I want to get away from one’s re­la­tion­ship with the Labour Party be­ing de­fined by what you think about him. And too of­ten it is about him.”

Are we past peak Cor­byn? “Don’t know re­ally,” he replies. “I think there’s far too much dis­cus­sion about the per­son­al­ity and the cult. I thought the same un­der Blair, the fan wor­ship of one in­di­vid­ual never sat ter­ri­bly com­fort­ably with me. If Tony Blair hadn’t be­come leader of the Labour Party I wouldn’t have joined it, but I couldn’t deal with the fan­dom, which is why it pushed me in a way to the soft-left of the party. And equally, at last year’s party con­fer­ence some­body pre­sented Jeremy with a pic­ture of him­self with a halo on his head on the plat­form! I was just like, ‘We’re a po­lit­i­cal party! Not a fan club.’

“So it’s the wrong ques­tion for me,” Umunna goes on. “I don’t do the whole cult thing and I don’t care who the leader is and I never ever par­tic­u­larly sub­scribed to that way of do­ing pol­i­tics.”

Like every­thing that Umunna says, this sounds smooth and com­pelling, but it is not hard to find peo­ple who be­lieve that his best — and per­haps only — chance of be­com­ing Labour leader is in the past. Each year since 2007, the right-lean­ing blog­ger and LBC ra­dio host Iain Dale has con­vened a panel to se­lect the 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple on the left. Umunna has been a fix­ture since 2010, with a top-10 rank­ing from 2012 to 2014, but in re­cent years, his po­si­tion has been on the slide. Last year, he was in 20th spot and when the new line-up is re­vealed in Septem­ber, Dale ex­pects him to drop fur­ther down the list.

“I don’t see that he has had any ma­te­rial in­flu­ence within the Labour par­lia­men­tary party, apart from on Europe,” ex­plains Dale.

“And I think he’s been eclipsed on that sub­ject by one or two peo­ple as well. Not sur­pris­ingly he wasn’t in Jeremy Cor­byn’s top team, and he has been a lit­tle bit of a thorn in Cor­byn’s side ever since, but not re­ally a rebel that’s caused Cor­byn mas­sive prob­lems. So my sus­pi­cion would be that he would go down, prob­a­bly quite a bit, be­cause he’s never men­tioned in the next leader con­ver­sa­tions any more, partly be­cause of the makeup of the Labour party mem­ber­ship now. So it’s quite dif­fi­cult where he goes from here, un­less there’s some sort of com­pletely un­ex­pected de­vel­op­ment.”

and yet. It doesn’t feel time to give up on Umunna just yet. A phrase that re­curs in our in­ter­views is that “pol­i­tics is tem­po­rary”. There’s cer­tainly plenty of ev­i­dence to sup­port that state­ment from the last few years. The first time Em­manuel Macron runs for any of­fice, he be­comes the Pres­i­dent of France. Like­wise Trump. Cor­byn.

“Any­thing’s pos­si­ble based on world pol­i­tics over the last two years!” says Jonathan Reynolds, a Labour MP who has known Umunna since they were at Manch­ester Uni­ver­sity to­gether and Umunna’s email ad­dress was “uk­speedgarage­f­reak”. “There’s no sense of Chuka re­treat­ing from front­line pol­i­tics, which is great, he’s still got a big hunger for it and you see that in the Brexit stuff. And I think he’s not ob­sess­ing about that lead­er­ship stuff, maybe like he was be­fore that con­test, which is a good thing, be­cause it means he’s much more com­fort­able in be­ing him­self and do­ing what he thinks is right. So who knows what that will lead to? There’s no doubt he’s one of the most tal­ented peo­ple on our benches.”

Iain Dale, too, notes that there are few Labour politi­cians that the Con­ser­va­tives fear as much. He re­calls do­ing a ra­dio phone-in just be­fore the 2015 gen­eral elec­tion when one caller an­nounced that if Umunna was in charge, he’d vote Labour. It hadn’t been what they were talk­ing about, but for the next hour, caller af­ter caller said ex­actly the same thing. “It was com­pletely spon­ta­neous; I’ve never seen any­thing like it,” says Dale. “If Chuka walks into a room, peo­ple turn round and he be­comes the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. Oh, if he’d taken over from Ed Miliband he would have been in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous to the Tories. Be­cause he’s got that ap­peal across pol­i­tics, which all suc­cess­ful politi­cians have: Mar­garet Thatcher had it, Tony Blair had it and I think he’s got it.”

For now, Umunna will keep talk­ing to any­one who will lis­ten about Brexit, which he calls “the big­gest is­sue fac­ing this coun­try since World War II”. But when I sug­gest that he’s gam­bling on Brexit prov­ing to be a dis­as­ter, he seems af­fronted. “I be­lieve it, so I don’t re­ally see it as a gam­ble,” he shoots back. “I don’t see it in that way at all. Look, I’m very happy to be proved wrong, that would be great.”

Gaz­ing out of his win­dow, over Par­lia­ment Square, he has a doomy prog­no­sis for both par­ties. “This place thinks that if Brexit hap­pens, things are go­ing to go back to nor­mal,” he says. “So the Labour Party thinks that ul­ti­mately it will be seen as the fault of the Con­ser­va­tives, which I think is wrong. I think, un­less we adopt a more dis­tinc­tive anti-Brexit mes­sage, we will be seen as co-mid­wives of the project, par­tic­u­larly given we did not do enough in 2016 to win that ref­er­en­dum. So the idea that we will be ab­solved of any re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fall­out is just for the birds.”

When Umunna talks, it’s hard not to feel that he is men­tally pre­par­ing a fu­ture man­i­festo. He be­lieves that the stance each in­di­vid­ual MP takes on Brexit will come to be as sig­nif­i­cant as where you stood on the Iraq War: “If we hit eco­nomic choppy wa­ters in the fu­ture, where you are on this is­sue will never be for­got­ten,” he pre­dicts. “It will de­fine pol­i­tics af­ter.” That’s why he spent the early sum­mer at­tempt­ing — though fail­ing — to con­vince col­leagues to vote to stay in the Euro­pean Eco­nomic Area. And there are other pas­sion projects: he wants a des­ig­nated NHS tax; he wants to turn the Houses of Par­lia­ment into a mu­seum and re­place it with a mod­ern elec­toral sys­tem with some form of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion; he wants to re­duce the vot­ing age to 16.

“My over­whelm­ing sense re­ally is that the way we do pol­i­tics is ter­ri­bly old-fash­ioned,” he goes on. “Both the two main par­ties are look­ing very stale and al­most hubris­tic about the elec­tion re­sult last year and not ter­ri­bly mod­ern. Both the main par­ties are reach­ing for old so­lu­tions to to­mor­row’s prob­lems. Hav­ing had time to think, get out, go and see things, that is my feel­ing.”

It is not of­ten you hear a politi­cian crit­i­cise both the op­po­si­tion and his own party — it sounds like a cagey pitch for a new cen­trist party. The idea that there’s a vast, mostly over­looked mid­dle ground be­tween the Cor­bynised Labour Party and a Con­ser­va­tive Party egged on by Jacob Rees-Mogg comes up ev­ery so of­ten: in April, it was re­vealed that a small group of en­trepreneurs and phi­lan­thropists had se­cretly raised £50m in fund­ing for a new party. The names most of­ten men­tioned as po­ten­tial lead­ers are Blair, David Miliband and Umunna.

Umunna knows that trap, and swerves it. “A lot of peo­ple talk to me about it, peo­ple come up to me on the tube and the bus in Lon­don and on the train out of Lon­don,” he says. “It’s a grow­ing topic of con­ver­sa­tion and it’s the cry of the grass roots and the pub­lic for our pol­i­tics to be dif­fer­ent. And the two main par­ties have an op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress that.”

umunna turns 40 in Oc­to­ber. That’s not old, cer­tainly in a job where the av­er­age age is 50-ish. But he’s had a bruis­ing, at­tri­tional ride. As much as he ap­peals to vot­ers from both the main par­ties, he clearly ap­pears to threaten

the politi­cians from both wings. An ex­am­ple: in 2013, it emerged that the ear­li­est com­par­i­son be­tween Umunna and Obama was made in 2008, on a Wikipedia page that was ac­tu­ally cre­ated on a com­puter in the law firm then em­ploy­ing Umunna. Not a great look, and when the prime min­is­ter David Cameron taunted him in the Com­mons, “Can we change our Wikipedia en­try? Yes we can!” the line got laughs from the Tory MPs, as you’d ex­pect, but also guf­faws from the Labour benches.

Pol­i­tics is a greased pole, with the par­tic­i­pants scrab­bling to reach the top like con­tes­tants on a Ja­panese game show. That’s not news, but Umunna does ap­pear to get sin­gled out for spe­cial vit­riol. The week we first met, he was em­broiled in a new row about un­paid in­terns. I’ ll spare you the back-and­forth, but the mat­ter ended with the hash­tag #PayUpChuka trend­ing, and a brief­ing note sent to the en­tire party re­mind­ing them of Labour pol­icy on the mat­ter. “Poor Chuka,” the New States­man’s “Me­dia Mole” com­mented. “A salu­tary les­son: for the leader’s of­fice, re­venge is a dish best served in front of all 256 of your col­leagues.” A prom­i­nent Labour fig­ure, who asked not to be named, tells me: “They are go­ing for him, oh to­tally. Any­thing they can do to take him down a peg or two.”

Umunna is not at all easy to get a read on. You have con­ver­sa­tions with him that you can’t imag­ine hav­ing with any other British politi­cian (about the Fridge, say, or the pro­tracted dis­cus­sion he has with the schoolkids in Brix­ton about how Clarks’ Wal­labees, which he used to wear, and Kick­ers, which he didn't, are now on trend again). He has a sharp in­tel­li­gence, and he’s drawn to in­tractable prob­lems: Brexit, with its in­fi­nite, ab­struse tech­ni­cal­i­ties is per­fect for him in this re­gard. You just know he must have been a for­mi­da­ble lawyer. And, to me at least, he seems sin­cere in his drive to im­prove lives, ad­dress in­equal­ity. But Umunna, to tin­ker with Alas­tair Camp­bell’s dec­la­ra­tion, doesn’t do vul­ner­a­bil­ity. I felt that I could have in­ter­viewed him for 100 hours and the real Umunna would have re­mained a mys­tery. And per­haps this is fair and sen­si­ble: he has the in­nate sus­pi­cions of a man who knows he has many en­e­mies des­per­ate for him to slip up.

Our in­ter­ac­tions for this ar­ti­cle fell into a pat­tern. I’d tell Umunna that be­ing a mem­ber of par­lia­ment looked like a re­lent­less grind, and he’d re­ply that he had the best job in the world. “Look, pol­i­tics can be tough,” he says. “Now you say all that, you make me think I should be mis­er­able! Ha ha! I’m an op­ti­mist, right.” Umunna has many showy qual­i­ties, but these past three years have re­vealed a new one: re­silience. “You get a very thick skin, I sup­pose,” he says. “You have to in this job.”

Umunna gets called an Icarus, and in a rare — but clearly con­sid­ered — mo­ment of fal­li­bil­ity, he doesn’t en­tirely dis­miss the sug­ges­tion that he rose too high, too fast. “The prob­lem is, you can get a bit drunk on that,” he says. “Par­tic­u­larly if you’re new to pol­i­tics.”

Is that what hap­pened then? “I hope I didn’t… Maybe I did a bit. But I don’t think I did. What do I think?” He leaves a long pause, which is even more no­tice­able in such a flu­ent speaker. “I don’t think I was drunk on it, but it’s a good ques­tion to ask. Maybe I’d say, I got slightly car­ried away with that. The other thing in pol­i­tics, I think Pres­i­dent Macron ac­knowl­edges this, is that what you do is only half the story. You don’t con­trol time and place of­ten. And I sup­pose that’s the thing.”

Macron is in some ways a touch­stone for Umunna: same age, sim­i­lar pol­i­tics. They met when Umunna was shadow busi­ness sec­re­tary and Macron was François Hol­lande’s min­is­ter of econ­omy, in­dus­try and dig­i­tal af­fairs. Be­fore Macron launched his party En Marche! he shared the plans with Umunna — “I was quite bowled over by it,” he says, “very bold” — and it’s said they still swap texts, though Umunna won’t con­firm. An­other kin­dred spirit is Canada’s Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau. When Trudeau was in Lon­don ear­lier this year, there were un­con­firmed re­ports that Umunna or­gan­ised a gath­er­ing for him and young cen­tre-left politi­cians and ac­tivists in a pub just off Trafal­gar Square. Again, Umunna’s say­ing noth­ing.

But, Umunna con­cedes, Bri­tain is not France; the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is closer to Canada, which also has first-past-the-post elec­tions, but there are plenty of dif­fer­ences, too. Right now, his strat­egy is start­ing to mir­ror the play­book of a very dif­fer­ent politi­cian. Like Umunna, he sat on the back­benches of the House of Com­mons for years es­pous­ing views that seemed not only un­fash­ion­able but miles from the zeit­geist. He was beloved in his Lon­don con­stituency, but there was a per­cep­tion that he was too di­vi­sive, too much of a rebel, not a team player. No one be­lieved he could unite his party, let alone gal­vanise the coun­try be­hind him.

For Cor­byn in 2015 you could read Umunna in 2022. You can al­most hear the chants at Glas­ton­bury: “Oh Chuka Umunnaaa…!” It scans rather well.

‘Un­less we adopt a more dis­tinc­tive mes­sage, Labour will be seen as co­mid­wives of Brexit, given we did not do enough to win the 2016 ref­er­en­dum’

Chuka Umunna, pho­tographed in 1980 in the gar­den of his fam­ily home in Streatham, south Lon­don. Since 2010, he has been the area's Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Op­po­site left: Umunna’s fa­ther, Ben­nett Umunna, who died in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances in a road ac­ci­dent in Nige­ria, in 1992 Op­po­site right: Umunna, his younger sis­ter Chinwe and their mother Pa­tri­cia at a friend’s re­cent wed­ding on the Isle of Wight

for the record, Umunna would no doubt dis­pute that anal­y­sis and, to be fair, he does not strike you as a hol­low, un­ful­filled per­son. “I hon­estly do feel like the luck­i­est man alive,” he in­sists, over lunch at Batch and Co, a cof­fee shop in Streatham. “I have a beau­ti­ful daugh­ter,

Umunna mar­riedAlice Sul­li­van, an em­ploy­ment lawyer, in Glouces­ter­shire in 2016

Above, left: Umunna with Em­manuel Macron, then France's Min­is­ter of Econ­omy, In­dus­try and Dig­i­tal Af­fairs, Paris, Oc­to­ber 2015 Above, right: along­side Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau at a pol­icy net­work reception, Lon­don, 2015

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