A senior British cabinet minister insisted on Sunday that the Labour party could not “spare” David Miliband to take the role of Europe’s first “foreign secretary”.

Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, claimed that the British foreign secretary did not want to go. “We’ll be keeping him,” she told the BBC.

Mr Miliband is understood to be tempted by the post of “high representative for foreign affairs”, set to be created when the European Union’s Lisbon treaty is ratified.

Within Labour he is a potential leadership candidate if the party loses next year’s general election, but he may not relish the probable internecine battle for the post and a successive half a decade or more in opposition.

Taking the EU post would enable Mr Miliband to retain a powerful position in international affairs.

The foreign secretary has insisted in public that he has no interest and is “not available” for the EU role. But the Sunday Times newspaper reported Martin Schulz, the German leader of the socialist bloc in the European parliament, saying: “I have had several very positive discussions regarding the matter with Miliband recently.”

Gordon Brown, prime minister, is said to be happy with either Mr Miliband as foreign secretary of the EU or Tony Blair in the presidential role.

Mr Blair has refused to throw in the towel as a potential candidate in spite of evidence that Europe will choose its new head from a cast-list of relatively unknown figures on the world stage.

Last week’s two-day EU summit in Brussels ended with Mr Blair’s candidacy looking doomed. However, he was said by aides to be “relaxed” and British officials still hope he can win through when Europe has a closer look at the alternatives.

A decision on who should take Europe’s top jobs has been deferred until another summit – probably on November 10 or 12.

On Friday, Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, said front-runners – presumably Mr Blair – did not always emerge as winners. Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Luxembourg are among those declining to support him.

Ms Merkel said the EU president’s job should go to someone from a smaller country “this time”. That left the field wide open, with Jan Peter Balk­enende, Dutch premier, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg prime minister, and Fredrik Reinfeldt, Swedish prime minister, as potential candidates.

A dark horse is emerging in the shape of Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s recently appointed prime minister.

Britain has a habit of vetoing Belgian premiers on the grounds that they tend to be federalists. London blocked Guy Verhofstadt in 2004 and Jean-Luc Dehaene in 1994.

Mr Blair’s receding chances appeared to coincide with Mr Miliband staying firmly in the running for the foreign policy role.

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