Chuka Umunna resigns from Labour leadership contest: a realisation that this isn’t how he wants to live his life

Attention paid to those close to Umunna made him think again, says Oliver Wright

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The Independent Online

In the end there turned out to be no bombshell revelation; no kiss-and-tell lover waiting in the wings or damaging newspaper story about to break.

In reality, Chuka Umunna’s seemingly inexplicable decision to withdraw from the Labour leadership race yesterday was more prosaic but oddly more profound: he realised – far too late – that it wasn’t the way he wanted to live his life.

To understand the root causes of the announcement, you have to go back five years to when the 32-year-old was first elected to the House of Commons.

Even in the febrile world of Westminster, no new Parliamentary fresher has ever quite attracted so much immediate media attention or political hype as the handsome, black MP for Streatham.

At first this began as adulation: Umunna was lazily dubbed a future ‘British Obama’ by the press, and he was talked of as a future Labour leader and Prime Minister even before Ed Miliband had been elected. But, as with most shooting stars of British public life, after the adulation came the take down.

Shortly after his sudden rise to shadow Business Secretary, he began attracting high-profile negative attention from the right-wing press not inflicted on some of his more anonymous Labour colleagues.

The Daily Mail dug up details of a so-called “exclusive online club” for “jetrosexuals” that Umunna had joined in his twenties, where he asked for tips on the best nightspots to avoid the “trash and C-list wannabes” of London’s West End. Another newspaper claimed that a Wikipedia entry comparing him to President Obama had been created using a computer at the law firm where Umunna once worked.

But most personally difficult was the attention focused on his family. The Sun revealed details of what it described as “Chuk’s £1m Ibiza pad”, owned by his mother and paid for using an off-shore trust.

Friends of Umunna say that this kind of unwanted attention on those close to him, while not unexpected, had a significant effect. His father had died in a road accident when he was 13, leaving his mother to bring up Chuka and his sister alone and the three are still extremely close.

For his immediate family, the press intrusion was an unwelcome shock. “I think it would be fair to say that he has been having second thoughts about his political ambitions and what he really wants for a while,” said one person who knows him.

“I’m not sure it was always that way but I think he has become more and more aware of the downsides of living your life in glare of public scrutiny. There was a strong feeling among those closest to him that the attacks were vindictive.”

Umunna hinted at this in an interview in January when he said it was hard to “get the balance right” between what people “want to know about you the person and your family background” and what is acceptable to those you’re close to. “You want to protect them. You’re the public figure; they’re not the public figure,” he said. And what is abundantly clear is that this hit home very hard in the past few days. After Umunna was pictured with his girlfriend Alice Sullivan for the first time on Sunday Ms Sullivan’s 102-year-old grandmother was contacted by the media.

Not only that, but on Thursday Umunna’s mother was pursued down the street by a Sunday newspaper journalist asking questions about her son’s private life. The incident is understood to have contributed to her son’s decision this morning to quit the leadership. “It really hit home to him that his life would change forever if he was elected leader and it would have a profound effect on his family as well,” said an aide.

Of course, there may be aspects to Umunna’s personal life that he feared could come back to haunt him. And should he have been elected the tabloids would certainly have been looking for them. But, then again, maybe he’s telling the truth. In the most intriguing line of his “resignation” statement, he said he had “always wondered” whether it was “all too soon” for him to launch a leadership bid, adding: “I fear it was”. “Too soon” is not the same thing as never.