Chuka Umunna, the heir to Mandeltine and Heselson

He is better than Miliband and Balls at presenting Labour as pro-business and aspirational



Chuka Umunna is having a good upturn. As capitalism recovers from its worst crisis since before the war, he has switched smoothly from being a naive anti-market leftie to a Mandeltine-Heselson cheerleader for business.

While some of his colleagues wallow in the consolations of Thomas Piketty, the French intellectual pin-up who tells them what they want to hear, namely that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, he tells the poor that a Labour government wants to help them "make their first million".

He told The House (the Commons magazine): "I don't have a problem with people making a lot of money, so long as they pay their taxes." A deliberate echo of Peter Mandelson, who was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" in 1998, but not so often quoted for the rest of his sentence, "as long as they pay their taxes".

Umunna's was a bracing interview, talking about things that have been unfashionable in Ed Miliband's Labour Party, including its most successful leader: "Don't tell me we crashed the car, because we left this country in an immeasurably better state in 2010 than we found it in 1997 and Tony Blair has a huge amount to do with that."

I am not saying Umunna is the new Blair. In many ways the Mandelson-Heseltine interventionist model that he espouses is well to the left of where Blair's instincts took him, but Umunna is turning into quite an effective harrier of the Government from just to its left – a position that used to be occupied, when Labour was in power, by Vince Cable, now the Business Secretary who Umunna shadows.

Umunna was strikingly assured last week on the bid for AstraZeneca. David Cameron has been caught between appearing not to care if foreign giants snap up British companies and trying to secure what in other cases have turned out to be worthless guarantees of British jobs.

Cameron said in October: "Some people look at foreign companies investing in our businesses or taking over our football clubs and ask – shouldn't we do something to stop it? Well, let me tell you, the answer is no." I missed that Question To Which The Answer is No for my collection.

The advantage of being in opposition is that you can pretend that the answer is "maybe", and Umunna did it well. He scored an easy win over David Willetts, the Science Minister, on the Today programme on Friday. He said, gravely: "There is grave concern in the business community." Pfizer had a "poor record on previous acquisitions". He spoke of "intellectual asset-stripping", and he deployed the Paxman gambit, asking Willetts repeatedly if ministers had been in contact with the AstraZeneca board over the previous 24 hours.

Later that day, Paul Staines, the trouble-making blogger known as Guido Fawkes, started an internet count-down to Umunna's appearance on BBC2's Daily Politics, assuming that he would be torn apart by Andrew Neil. But Umunna seemed to know more than Neil about American tax law that makes a British company such a desirable target for a US-based multinational. Neil abandoned his feeble attempt to accuse Umunna of interfering in the workings of the market and moved on.

Perhaps Umunna is like Blair at his worst, clever but shallow. But Blair at his worst would be better than most of the possible leaders Labour has to offer. Which is why some of my fellow Kremlin-watchers thought that Umunna's aspirational interview with The House was unsubtle positioning for the leadership, should Labour lose the election next year. I am sure it was, but the more interesting thing about Umunna is the seriousness with which he is preparing for office. He talks to Mandelson, Blair, Heseltine and Andrew Adonis about how to make things happen. "I'm a sponge for the wisdom and experience that lots of these people are happy to share," he said, a little obsequiously.

For someone who hasn't been a minister, he has learned fast. Look out for Labour's plans for student fees, on which Umunna is working with Liam Byrne, the party's universities spokesman. I understand that Ed Miliband's preferred graduate tax is not going to happen – mainly because it would cost more in the short run and the money would have to come out of Umunna's business department budget.

Umunna is interesting because he is better than either Miliband or Ed Balls at presenting Labour as the pro-business, aspirational face of reform capitalism. His media performances have been increasingly confident. Win or lose next year, he is likely to be one of Labour's main players. As the economy grows, he will be well placed to move the party on from complaining about the cost of living to identifying Labour with people who want to make money and get on in life. "So long as they pay their taxes."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

John Noakes was everyone’s favourite presenter in the 1970s. It’s a shock to realise the eternal boy scout is now an octogenarian suffering from dementia  

How remarkable that John Noakes still has the power to affect me so

Matthew Norman
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy