Chuka Umunna’s fit of pique at the end of his Sky interview was unnecessary. One of the skills of a politician who fancies being a leader is to look calm and reasonable in the face of unreasonable questions.
But to be fair to Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, there is nothing wrong with refusing to comment on something you don’t know enough about. There’s something very off-putting and insincere about a politician who blags their way through an interview or panel session like an English student pontificating their way through a seminar on a book they never bothered to read. He could have read those detailed media briefings that Labour sends out every day, but I know very few Labour MPs who read them all as they are just so detailed.
The problem – and I suspect this was the frustration that Dermot Murnaghan was expressing in his interview – is that politicians who have read the letter or the news story or whatever political hot potato they are being asked about tend to claim they haven’t as a way of wriggling out of commenting on the matter. David Cameron has a phalanx of media advisers but manages to give the impression he never comes across awkward comments made by members of his own party. So do all the party leaders, including Nigel Farage: ‘I haven’t seen that report’ is something politicians deploy the whole time when they clearly know exactly what the interviewer is talking about. It’s a frustratingly effective technique, as the only response is the one Murnaghan gave, which is to ask the interviewee to go off and read the letter/report/op-ed in question and come back, and of course that sounds a bit grumpy.
But if you haven’t seen the letter, then it’s difficult to sound as though you’re just showing humility and not offering a poorly-founded opinion when so many of your colleagues claim ignorance as a means of protecting themselves, rather than just because they’re being honest. In this instance, Umunna appears to be the victim of a frustration wrought by other politicians: he genuinely hadn’t read the letter and was being punished for the obfuscation of those who always like to use that dog-ate-my-homework excuse to make their lives easier.