Is Ed Miliband's 'brush-by' with Obama just a waste of time?

Jul 21, 2014
The Mole

Damian McBride stirs up trouble – while Tony Blair offers to help Ed at election. Thanks but no thanks

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Ed Miliband is receiving advice on how to win the general election from two unwanted Labour sources. Damian McBride has warned Ed he’s wasting his time with his “brush-by” meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House later today, while Tony Blair is urging him – not for the first time – to stick to centrist policies if he wants to get to Downing Street.

The visit to the White House is not a full-scale diplomatic visit. Miliband will have a meeting with Susan Rice, the president’s National Security Adviser, and a "drop by" to the Oval Office for a handshake with the leader of the western world.

The danger for Miliband, as McBride knows from bitter experience, is that he could be “snubbed” if Obama suddenly finds it necessary to take a phone call from Putin.

McBride, forced to resign as Gordon Brown's spin-doctor over the use of political black arts, was burned by the debacle when Brown was snubbed five times in his requests for a private meeting with Obama in New York, eventually settling for the indignity of a passing chat in the United Nations kitchen.

In an article for The Times, McBride recalls that three of Miliband’s top advisers remember the Brown disaster only too well - Miliband’s campaign co-ordinator Douglas Alexander was present throughout; Miliband’s top adviser, Stewart Wood, was in charge of White House relations; and Michael Dugher, Labour communications chief, was left in the lurch handling the media.

It was Alexander, McBride claims, who leaked the “five snubs” story, which caused Dugher the worst week of his professional life. "If Dugher does not trust Alexander one inch, he has good cause," says McBride, in a line which is sure to be used by the Tories.

McBride acidly notes that there is a dash of hypocrisy about today’s photo op with the President. He says Miliband rightly criticised David Cameron’s “women first” Cabinet changes for putting image above substance, but then Miliband is “shuffling off to Washington for what is essentially a photo opportunity, just because focus groups say he doesn’t look prime ministerial”.

He predicts “a serious-faced Miliband in intense discussion with the President” because in the wake of Gaza and the downing of MH17 it is a serious news day. If the news agenda had been lighter, Miliband would have been pictured sharing a friendly guffaw with the President.

“It’s a waste of everyone’s time, not least Mr Obama’s,” says McBride. “It just reinforces America’s superiority complex and shrinks our junior-partner status ever further.”

The fact is, the Labour leader needs no advice from McBride. The photo op has been carefully choreographed with the help of David Axelrod, Obama’s former top adviser, who is now on Labour’s payroll until the general election. There will be no embarrassing shots of Miliband munching on a bacon sandwich in the Oval Office.

Which brings us to the second ghost from Labour's past offering unwanted advice to the current Labour leader.

Miliband travels to Washington after spending the weekend in Milton Keynes with Labour’s national policy forum, finalising the plans for the 2015 election manifesto.

He has beaten off a left-wing attempt to tear up the Con-Lib Dem coalition’s severe spending plans for 2015-2017. According to the BBC's report from Milton Keynes, Miliband insists there will be no return to the tax-and-spend policies of past Labour governments. Adam Boulton in the Sunday Times quotes him telling the forum on Saturday: "We have moved on from new Labour and we are not going back to Old Labour.”

Instead, Miliband will promise to tackle inequality through redistribution. There are fears that Harriet Harman, the deputy leader, let the cat out of the bag last week when she said it would mean the middle classes being taxed more.

Miliband's aides deny this, insisting that he will make life better for ordinary people through regulation, including an energy price freeze (conveniently forgetting their commitment to the mansion tax).

Listening to all that with his nose in the air is Tony Blair who will today urge Miliband once again not to desert the centre-ground of British politics.

Blair is delivering the first memorial Philip Gould lecture for the Blairite group, Progress, on the 20th anniversary of the day he became leader of the Labour Party.

Blair is offering to help Miliband win the next election. But with the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war nearing publication, Ed is likely to tell him the best way he can help is by staying a million miles away from Labour’s campaign.

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