Until the age of 13, Chuka Umunna had enjoyed a typically middle-class, privileged upbringing. His father was a successful businessman, his mother a solicitor from a long line of distinguished lawyers.
Then the world caved in on the teenager. His father died in a car crash in his homeland in Nigeria. Some suggest he may even have been murdered by political enemies.
Whatever the truth, life was never the same again for the one-time choirboy who on Friday caused widespread astonishment by quitting the Labour leadership race just three days after entering it.
His father’s sudden death may help to explain the week’s startling events.
Chuka Umunna and father Bennett Umunna
As a consequence of that car crash, Umunna is extremely close to his mother, Patricia, and sister, Chinwe, who has recently had a baby. Friends described them as an “incredibly tight-knit” unit, and he was unprepared for the intense scrutiny he felt they came under as a result of his leadership ambitions.
Before withdrawing from the contest, Umunna took counsel from them, The Telegraph has been told.
He had told friends he was keen to start a family himself. On Friday he concluded he couldn’t lead the Labour Party and put those closest to him in the spotlight too.
Umunna is, seemingly, a bag of contradictions. On the one hand a fiercely ambitious, sharp-suited politician, never afraid to thrust himself forward; on the other an extremely protective older brother trying to look after the women around him.
Bennett Umunna, Chuka’s father
His background is a collision of worlds, too. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Sir Helenus Milmo QC, one of the most distinguished lawyers of his day – a wartime intelligence officer, prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and former High Court judge. Chuka’s uncle, Patrick Milmo QC, is one of the leading libel lawyers of his generation.
If his family on his mother’s side had a privileged upbringing, the story on his father’s side was anything but.
Bennett Umunna, Chuka’s father, grew up in Ogbunka, a town more than 300 miles east of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. It is an impoverished region, its lush greenery and modest settlements a world away from the gilded halls and gothic splendour of the legal world his mother was born into.
Bennett arrived in England with very little at the docks in Liverpool in the 1960s, aged 33. He studied business administration at night school while taking jobs such as cleaning cars before starting a successful business importing and exporting between Europe and west Africa.
In 1976, he married Patricia Milmo; Chuka was born two years later. Chuka – it rhymes with “snooker” – incidentally translates as “God is greater”.
Chuka Umunna arriving for the Marr Show in London with his partner Alice Sullivan
“I am half Nigerian, quarter Irish, quarter English,” Umunna has said of his unlikely background. “My father was a rags-to-riches businessman who came over in the Sixties with no money. On my mother’s side, I am the grandson of a High Court judge and celebrated intelligence officer, so it’s quite an unusual combination.”
Umunna went first to a state primary and then to a minor public school in south London. He was a schoolboy chorister at Southwark Cathedral.
It was a comfortable upbringing in a large family home in Streatham in south London. Then, on April 1, 1992, his father was killed when the car he was travelling in crashed into a truck carrying logs. Just weeks earlier, Bennett, aged 51, had stood as a candidate for governor in his home state of Anambra.
At the time Nigeria was run under the hardline military leadership of General Ibrahim Babangida and corruption was rife. Bennett Umunna was running on an anti-corruption ticket in a state that, even by Nigerian standards, was notorious. “Anambra is a snakepit,” one development worker said last week.
Bennett’s death has been subject to conjecture. “Bennett had refused to have anything to do with the corruption there,” said a source close to the family. “He was killed in a car crash. Chuka doesn’t speculate on how he died. It’s upsetting enough to have lost his father so young.”
But one seasoned Nigerian expert said yesterday: “A car crash at that time, in which someone died who was anti-corruption? Yeah, of course that’s suspicious.”
A former business partner and close friend of Bennett Umunna had gone further.
“We always thought he was killed by someone, because he did things on the night of his death that he never did in Nigeria,” said the late Ron Noades, the former chairman of Crystal Palace football club in an interview in 2012. Bennett had been a director of the club. Mr Noades said: “He was travelling at night and, secondly, he got into a car with a driver who was not his regular. We always thought he was killed by someone who may have seen him as a threat.”
Umunna has rarely spoken of his father’s death but has indicated the toll it took. “He is still a massive influence and his death had a profound effect on me,” Umunna once said. “He was something of a national figure, there were thousands of people at the funeral in Nigeria.”
In frequent visits to Nigeria, he had seen poverty first-hand and wanted to do something about it. “That is where my politics start, that sense of injustice,” Umunna has said.
It was to take him on a journey to the brink of the Labour leadership. Speculation of some startling revelation about his personal, business or political life that would have caused severe embarrassment has been strenuously denied.
His sister refused to discuss his decision to quit. “It is all very private,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.
In his statement, Umunna said: “Since the night of our defeat last week I have been subject to the added level of pressure that comes with being a leadership candidate.
“I have not found it to be a comfortable experience.”
He has perhaps not helped himself, parading his girlfriend, Alice Sullivan, an employment lawyer, on arrival for a BBC interview last Sunday, when he laid out his credentials. It is suggested Miss Sullivan’s family were then subjected to media scrutiny.
But Umunna can feel hard done by. His team suggest that a combination of his unusual background, good looks and penchant for expensive suits made him a more interesting contender to follow than the others. Now he is out of the race, it will be a bit more mundane. The reality, of course, is that Umunna, hugely ambitious, will be back to try again. Probably in five years’ time.
Source: UK Telegraph