On Monday, one of the most important politicians from Britain arrives in Washington — and no one seems to have realized it. Ed Miliband, the leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition and a potential future prime minister, is coming to D.C. for a roundtable discussion at the Center for American Progress. Oh, and hopefully to meet President Obama. In keeping with diplomatic protocols, he won’t be received into the Oval Office. Instead, Miliband is reportedly scheduled for a “brush-by” meeting with the president.
Despite the Labor Party’s seven-point lead over David Cameron’s Conservatives, Team Miliband remain concerned about his public image. A poll last month suggested that 60 percent of the British people think he is “not up to the job” of prime minister. He’s hoping that Obama is the man to help solve that. Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Tony Blair, has described meeting the president as “the nearest the leader of the opposition gets to a job interview for prime minister.”
Obama will be cautious not to take sides, even if his former advisers haven't. Britain's 2015 election race will pit Washington's very own Jim Messina, former Obama campaign manager, against another former Obama adviser, David Axelrod. Miliband has employed Axelrod at a cost of around $500,000 to advise his campaign, while Messina has signed up as an adviser to Cameron. Miliband has also employed the services of Matthew McGregor, the "digital attack dog" who ran Obama's 2012 social-media campaign, and Arnie Graf, the Chicago-based community organizer who mentored the young Obama.
But Axelrod is the one who stands to gain the most from Monday's meeting, especially if he can take credit for building bridges from Labor to the Democrats. Although Obama has generally had a solid relationship with Cameron and his team — Syria aside, the pair went to a basketball game together in a swing state during the 2012 campaign — some of those around the president dislike Messina, believing he took more credit than some thought was deserved for his role in the president’s reelection. Even without his employment of Axelrod, it would be surprising if Miliband wasn't granted an audience with Obama; Cameron and Blair had brush-bys with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton when they were opposition leaders.
The trip has been played down on both sides of the pond. Few in Washington are even aware of who Miliband, is and the meeting is barely on the radar of even the most ardent Obama observers. The White House has not confirmed the brush-by; a spokesman said there is “nothing to announce on the president’s schedule” for Monday but confirmed that Miliband will be meeting with national security adviser Susan Rice. Will the president find time to casually drop in? Axelrod and Miliband will be hoping so.
In Westminster, Team Miliband is rather anxious about the visit going wrong. Marcus Roberts, a former Miliband aide, stressed the importance of the visit and how it could be a turning point of how Miliband is perceived in Britain and farther afield. “This visit will be seen as a key test for Team Miliband and Ed himself. If this goes well, Ed will look presidential and authoritative, like Obama in London in 2008. If it goes badly, it’ll be more like Mitt Romney in 2012,” Roberts said, in reference to the Republican candidate’s gaffs during a visit to London two years ago.
It’s unlikely that any presidential meeting Miliband has will be worse than past Labor leaders'. Neil Kinnock, who was leader of the Labor Party from 1982 to 1992, met with Ronald Reagan just before the 1987 general election. Kinnock was granted half an hour with Reagan, which he deemed to be a great success and said so in a press statement. The White House felt differently and said the president was profoundly concerned about Labor’s policy of unilateral disarmament.
Miliband's immediate predecessor as Labor leader did not fare much better. In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown requested a formal meeting with Obama five times. Embarrassingly, Brown's requests were rejected, and he received only a brush-by in the kitchen of the U.N. headquarters.
The Miliband brush-by would not be the first time the pair have publicly met. Obama and Miliband shared a 40-minute conversation, and a photo op, at Buckingham Palace three years ago. Obama advised Miliband to be more upbeat if he wanted to win. But with just 10 months to go until the general election, Miliband appears very keen for more advice and more gravitas from a president who may be struggling at home, but not as much as the man who may soon lead the United Kingdom.