Chuka Umunna, the heir to Mandeltine and Heselson

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

 

Share

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."

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game