Obama Meets Informally With U.K. Opposition's Miliband

Ed Miliband, the U.K. opposition leader seeking to become prime minister, met informally with President Barack Obama today in Washington.

While the talks weren’t on Obama’s public schedule, the president dropped by a meeting between Miliband and National Security Adviser Susan Rice at the White House, according to an administration official who wasn’t authorized to make a statement.

The meeting follows a tradition of American presidents informally meeting with British opposition leaders outside of the Oval Office, a venue typically reserved for talks with heads of state or government. The U.K. is the closest U.S. ally.

Miliband was meeting with Rice “to discuss issues of shared concern, including the situations in Ukraine, Israel/Gaza, and Iraq,” according to a White House statement. A statement from Miliband’s office said the talk with Obama lasted about 25 minutes.

From a British political perspective, the visit drew attention because of its potential implications for the 2015 elections.

In Washington, it held intrigue because Miliband, 44, and his electoral rival, Prime Minister David Cameron, 47, each have hired former high-ranking Obama political advisers who have returned to political consulting -- David Axelrod, for Miliband’s Labour Party, and Jim Messina for Cameron.

Miliband’s decision to vote against military action last year in Syria led to Cameron’s surprise defeat in Parliament, which in turn stayed Obama’s hand in responding to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

U.K. Elections

With the U.K. election 10 months away, Miliband is trying to improve perceptions of him as a potential prime minister. While his Labour Party is ahead of Cameron’s Conservative Party in polls, voters are less sure of the leader. Two YouGov polls this month both found 3 percent of voters identifying him as “a natural leader”, “charismatic” and “good in a crisis.”

A meeting with Obama may help Miliband “take that air that he can be prime minister, can manage well, hoping it can give a boost to a campaign that thus far hasn’t really caught fire,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy center.

Meanwhile, she said, “The British election in 2015 is going to be very important” because the U.K. “is at a very decisive movement about where its future lies, whether it will remain within the European Union,” Conley said.

While visits to the White House can add a touch a presidential glamor to a British leader, they can also backfire. In 1987, Labour leader Neil Kinnock had a rough half an hour with then-President Ronald Reagan, made worse when Reagan’s office briefed afterwards on the U.S.’s concerns about Labour’s nuclear disarmament policy.

When Cameron visited Obama in 2012, he received the all the trappings the U.S. can offer. The two men went to a basketball game together, and the next evening Obama gave a ball in Cameron’s honor on the White House lawn.

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