Steve Richards: Europe is a tempting opportunity

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The Independent Online

David Miliband has come to life. During his speech to Labour's conference last month he made a bold defence of the European Union and launched an uncharacteristically passionate onslaught against the Conservatives and their new allies in Europe. Yesterday he became even more vivacious on both fronts, articulating as powerfully as any Labour minister since 1997 the case for Europe and the dangers of the Conservatives' outdated isolationism. Occasionally Tony Blair delivered similar speeches, but only when he was out of Britain. On Europe Miliband is fired up and has decided to make the argument at home.

He is doing so partly because he believes it. He has been a consistent pro-European, although one not complacent about the need for reform. In terms of the looming general election he acts because he senses David Cameron is vulnerable on Europe. Miliband is convinced that Cameron's approach challenges the view of the Conservative leader as a modernising centrist.

His advocacy of Tony Blair as the new EU president is also an act of conviction. Miliband remains close to Blair, although they have met infrequently in recent years. Those who have worked with the former prime minister in the past are mounting a significant campaign for their old boss, some behind the scenes and some in public.

Miliband became a senior adviser for Blair from the beginning of his leadership in the summer of 1994. He wants a big name as the first president and shares Blair's view that the occupant of the ill-defined post must be more than an anonymous behind-the-scenes fixer.

What if Blair does not get the appointment? For several weeks now there has been speculation that Miliband might be offered the more influential and well-resourced foreign affairs brief. Miliband denies he wants the job. That is no surprise. If he expressed an interest his authority in domestic politics would plummet immediately and there is still no guarantee he would be appointed.

Probably Miliband's private thoughts on the matter are mixed, made more complicated by his tentative ambition to lead the Labour Party. Last summer quite a few of those who turned against Brown wanted him, rather than Alan Johnson, to take over.

He still regards himself as a potential successor, but is almost certainly ambivalent about the demands of such a job and has worries about the direction Labour might take in the event of a heavy defeat. Europe must seem like an attractive alternative as he contemplates nightmare scenarios in terms of domestic politics. But what if the scenarios here are less bleak? He may not get offered the foreign affairs post, but if he does he will have to make a decision before he knows the answer to that question.