Ed Miliband today did the rounds in Washington for the first time as leader of the opposition, preaching the virtues of the Atlantic alliance and urging tougher EU sanctions against Russia, ahead of an expected encounter with President Obama.
The Labour leader’s main session during a 30-minute visit to the White House was with national security adviser Susan Rice. But in accordance with the protocol of such occasions, Mr Obama was likely to “drop by” – allowing the two men to meet off-camera, away from the formal setting of the Oval Office.
Identical treatment was accorded David Cameron when he came to the Bush White House as a freshly minted Tory leader in 2007. Ironically, given his veiled criticisms of Mr Miliband yesterday, the last Labour opposition leader to get into the Oval Office was Tony Blair in 1996. Then, however, Mr Blair was the all-but-certain future Prime Minister, and – like the then Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton – a leader who had pulled his party to the centre in the name of a shared “third way” vision.
Video: Miliband - UK and US need to work together
Such congruity hardly exists between Mr Obama and Mr Miliband, even though the latter has hired David Axelrod, the top Obama strategist and architect of his sweeping 2008 victory, as a campaign adviser ahead of the general election now barely 10 months off.
Some resentment still lingers here at Mr Miliband’s role in the Commons’ rejection of military intervention in Syria last year, which pulled the rug from under Mr Obama’s efforts to forge a tough Western response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Nor, unlike Mr Blair, has Mr Miliband made much of an impression in Washington – even though, speaking to reporters before the White House talks, he stressed the importance of the transatlantic relationship and the similarity of the domestic problems facing the US and Britain.
The meeting comes at an unpropitious time for both leaders. UK polls suggest widespread public doubt that Mr Miliband is up to the job of Prime Minister, while Mr Obama’s current approval ratings are his lowest ever.
Nonetheless, the trip, overshadowed as it is by the crises in Ukraine and Gaza, is an important rite of passage. Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair’s former chief of staff and a member of the 1996 Labour delegation, once described it as “the nearest the leader of the opposition gets to a job interview for Prime Minister”.