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15 May 2015

Why Chuka Umunna withdrew from the Labour leadership race

There is no mystery behind the shadow business secretary's decision - media pressure led him to conclude he wasn't ready. 

By George Eaton

He was the bookies’ favourite but now he isn’t even a candidate. Chuka Umunna’s decision to withdraw from the Labour leadership race, just four days after declaring, prompted an inevitable raft of theories. Was there a Sunday tabloid exposé to come? (Friday being the day politicians often first get notice.) Did he fear Labour would lose the next election and think it better to wait? Was he struggling to make the ballot paper? (35 MP nominations are needed.) Was he planning to stand for Mayor of London? 

Those close to Umunna reject all of these. They say his statement, which referred to the intensified media pressure he had faced (“I have not found it to be a comfortable experience”), is an honest reflection of the facts. There is no scandal story to come (something confirmed by Sunday newspaper journalists), he was “well on the way” to 35 nominations and he is not running for Mayor. 

But Umunna was not prepared for Fleet Street’s intrusiveness. Aides say that in recent days his mother was followed home by the Daily Mail (a claim categorically denied by the paper) and his girlfriend’s parents and 102-year-old grandmother were doorstepped by the media. “Nothing can prepare you for what that is actually like,” an aide said. Umunna was also disturbed when the pregnant Rachel Reeves, walking beside him, was elbowed by the press pack before Monday’s shadow cabinet meeting. His decision, sources say, is a reflection that politics alone is not his life. Just as Reeves and Dan Jarvis have chosen not to stand in order to put their families first, so Umunna has done the same. 

The level of media attention led him to resolve that he had been wrong to stand in the first place – at the age of just 36 (making him the youngest candidate).  “I had always wondered whether it was all too soon for me to launch this leadership bid – I fear it was,” he said in his statement. Some in Labour suggest that the support of grandees such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson led him to feel he had an obligation to stand. Until last Thursday he sincerely believed he would be serving as Business Secretary in a Labour government and had been planning his first 100 days in the role. Aides emphasise that he is not a “Heseltine-style figure” who resolved to become prime minister by a particular age.

Umunna will remain as shadow business secretary and will endorse a candidate in the contest (most likely Liz Kendall or, if he runs, Tristram Hunt). The ardent pro-European also intends to “play a leading role” in the forthcoming campaign to keep the UK in the EU. But at only 36, he can still aspire to much greater posts. “We’re not saying never ever,” an aide carefully remarked of a future leadership bid. 

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Update: The Daily Mail has categorically denied following Umunna’s mother. The story has been amended to reflect this fact.