Ed Miliband met with Barack Obama yesterday, haven’t you heard? The British press covered the visit with their usual gusto but the visit barely registered on the radar of American outlets. Out of the country’s most influential papers, neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal wrote a single word about the potential next prime minister of the United Kingdom meeting the president. Miliband wasn’t covered on any of the blogs or TV stations either.
Only one US paper said anything about the visit. In yesterday’s Washington Post, I described the lack of interest in Miliband’s visit from Washington’s point of view and why the trip matters for the Labour leader:
‘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.’
Given the crises over MH17 and Gaza, some may think it’s impressive that Obama found any time to meet Miliband. Yet the president was only carrying out his diplomatic duty by offering the opposition leader a now traditional ‘brush-by’ meeting. These quick encounters are not officially scheduled, but tend to be prearranged between advisers and have now become a requirement for any prime minister in waiting. Tony Blair received 20 minutes with Bill Clinton in 1996, while David Cameron was given half an hour with George W. Bush in 2007. Gordon Brown received a brush-by with Obama in 2009 — but embarrassingly, it was in the kitchen of the United Nations HQ in New York and he was prime minister at the time.
Yet the success of yesterday’s meeting has a special significance for Miliband. Firstly, he was photographed with the president discussing key issues of the day: Ukraine, Gaza, the economy, climate change, Scottish independence and the future of the EU according to a Labour spokesman. As Jonathan Powell has pointed out there’s no better way for an opposition leader to appear prime ministerial than meeting with the president. Secondly, Miliband has employed the services of David Axelrod, a former Obama adviser, for a reported sum of £300,000. If Miliband were unable to secure a meeting at this cost, it would be rather embarrassing.
But Miliband got his meeting, plus a positive statement from the White House, coverage in the British press and the photo op. All of these add weight to the notion that he’s being taken seriously round the world as a potential PM.
Flying thousands of miles to achieve this might seem a little vain. Maybe it’s a sign of the importance of what’s going on in the world at present, or maybe it is Britain’s declining influence in America; but Miliband’s visit to Washington has been a non-event in the U.S. If Miliband does become the next prime minister, both America and the DC political bubble will be scratching their heads wondering just who he is.