Should he stay or should he go? Miliband ponders

November 9, 2009

OUKTP-UK-IRAN-NUCLEAR-BRITAINShould he stay or should he go?

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband could be Europe’s first foreign minister in all but name, with one of the most influential jobs in shaping the place of the 27-nation bloc on the world stage, if he is willing to risk leaving British politics for the next five years. That’s a big if.

Miliband is half of a “ticket” concocted by French and German diplomats to fill the two new top jobs created by the Lisbon treaty. The other half is Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy, the preferred candidate for president of the European Council. Officially, Miliband says he is “not available” and is backing Tony Blair’s forlorn bid for the presidency. If he turns the role down, it could well to go to former Italian Prime Minister Massimo d’Alema.

The High Representative for foreign and security policy, with a big diplomatic staff, a multi-billion-euro budget and the additional position of senior vice-president of the European Commission, will arguably be more powerful than the European Council president, whose role is largely to prepare and chair quarterly summits. Miliband would bring dynamism, an incisive intellect and inspiring oratory to the job.

At 44, he is seen as the natural next leader of the Labour Party if, as expected, Gordon Brown loses the next general election. Given the average length of Britain’s political cycle since the 1980s, the centre-left party probably faces at least two parliamentary terms in opposition — roughly eight years. So Miliband would have time to burnish his international credentials in Brussels and return home before he turns 50, and before Labour has exited the political wilderness.

Another former Labour leader, Harold Wilson, famously said that a week is a long time in politics. Five years is an age. Other Labour politicians will fill the vacuum left by Miliband if he decamps to the continent. They may be less talented, but no one is likely to placidly keep the opposition leader’s seat warm until he is ready to make a triumphant comeback.

And don’t rule out smaller short-term considerations. A Miliband departure would cause an unwelcome by-election for Labour before the next general election.

Conventional wisdom remains that Brussels is a graveyard for British politicians. No one had ever returned from the European Commisssion to a position of national leadership until Peter Mandelson was called home last year and rose to became number two to Brown.

Labour leaders traditionally have to earn their spurs by sparring weekly in parliament with a Conservative prime minister and facing down the hard left during the party’s long spells in opposition, rather than galavanting around the world on an EU expense account.

The British are not alone in treating top European jobs as second best to national politics. “If you have a grandpa, send him to Europa,” is an old German political saying. The last heavyweight French commissioner was Jacques Delors, who retired in 1995.

History suggests that Miliband is likely to opt to stay in London if he wants to become prime minister one day. What would you think he should do?

(corrects “senior” vice-president, which is not automatic)

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