Chuka Umunna denies immediate move to Lib Dems, saying he’s ‘keeping all options open’

Exclusive: Former Labour frontbencher aims to develop a Momentum-style movement to drive centre-ground politics

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 09 June 2019 15:37
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Change UK: Six MPs quit as Anna Soubry becomes leader

Chuka Umunna has said he is “keeping all options open” on his political future, amid intense speculation about a move to the Liberal Democrats following the dramatic split of Change UK.

Lib Dem leadership contender Ed Davey has said he would welcome the former Labour frontbencher as a member, while his rival in the race to succeed Vince Cable, Jo Swinson, says the party’s “doors are open” to those who share its values.

But speaking to The Independent, Mr Umunna made clear that, after quitting two parties in little over three months, his immediate focus is less on finding a new political home than on developing his vision for a Momentum-style movement to push forward centre-ground politics.

Asked if he might eventually apply to join the Lib Dems, he said only: “I am keeping all options open and will carry on focusing on the needs of my constituents.”

Relations with the Lib Dems were a cause of tension in the final days before last week’s split, with Anna Soubry – now Change UK leader – furious with then interim leader Heidi Allen’s call for tactical voting in favour of Vince Cable’s party, where it stood a chance of picking up MEPs in the May European elections.

Ms Soubry said she saw Umunna as “a man of huge ability and talents” and a potential future prime minister, who had made “a very serious mistake” in quitting the party.

The Streatham MP’s proposals for the development of Change UK as a movement, rather than a traditional election-fighting party, are understood to have been a key factor in the split which saw six of its 11 MPs walk out last week.

The remaining five MPs are keen to develop a wide-ranging policy platform and party structures to enable Change to stand candidates in future elections. They feared that Mr Umunna’s plans might result in the grouping becoming little more than a support structure for the longer-established Lib Dems.

Ms Soubry told The Guardian: “I said to him, ‘The movement’s out there, we just need to build a home for that movement, a political party’.”

But speaking to The Independent, Mr Umunna made clear that the chastening experience of scoring just 3.4 per cent in the European ballot – and dipping as low as 1 per cent in later opinion polls - bolstered his belief that the fledgling Change UK did not have the infrastructure and resourcing to compete in elections at this stage. Instead, his vision for the grouping was as a movement to support centrist pro-European progressive politics in a similar way that Momentum fuels Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, or grassroots Leave campaigns power the Brexit Party.

“The centre-ground needs an eco-system that can compete with what has emerged around the populist Left and populist Right,” he said. “Corbyn and Farage have come about with the aid of movements, think-tanks, social media networks and other organisations helping to power their politics. We need the same coming together to support the centre ground.”

Umunna said that the next general election, which could come as early as next year, could be a “game changer” for UK politics.

“I think there is a huge opportunity to disrupt and change our broken two-party system with a radical, centre-ground alternative given the terrible results for Labour and the Tories in both the local elections and the European elections, which can’t simply be dismissed as a protest vote,” he said.

“However, it is vital that all the parts of the centre-ground eco-system that can help make that happen – it can’t be done by any one organisation alone – are properly developed and resourced.”

It is understood that remaining members of Change UK felt their hands were tied during the Euro election campaign, by constraints on fighting back at what they saw as “dirty tricks” by Lib Dems. They felt the party should have responded more forcefully to suggestions it was to blame for the failure to forge a joint Remain ticket in the Euro campaign, or the Lib Dems poaching a Change UK candidate in Scotland.

Both sides of the split have denied suggestions of a personal rift, and Change UK MP Chris Leslie still shares a Commons office with Mr Umunna.

The Independent Group members: (back row left to right) Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker, Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes, (middle row, left to right) Angela Smith, Luciana Berger and Ann Coffey, (front row, left to right) Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Joan Ryan

Mr Leslie described the division as being the result of a “tactical disagreement”, rather than ideological differences or personal tensions.

“My view is that if we are wanting to effect real change in real time, we have to be a player around the political table and be willing to stand in elections and to allow the public to have an input into the process,” he said.

“That, for me, means we have to retain political party structures. My worry about taking a role as an independent on the backbenches is that, while as an individual you can make speeches and call for change, you are not able actually to shape events. It’s the difference between talking about problems and doing something about problems.”

He said that donations and registrations of support had continued coming in after last week’s split, but he left no doubt that he recognised the uphill struggle facing a tiny party which has faced formidable setbacks in the first few weeks of its existence.

“People know it is going to be tough, and we have got more tough times to come,” said the Nottingham East MP, who quit Labour with Mr Umunna in February.

“Those who are our natural supporters do understand it is a long haul, it’s going to be tough but we are trying to keep the flag flying.”

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