Blair may support Morgan for Wales

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TONY BLAIR may be forced to make a spectacular U-turn by backing Rhodri Morgan for the job he did not want him to land: Labour's leader in the new Welsh Assembly.

Labour bosses will draft in Mr Morgan, a maverick backbench MP, to stop Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary, making a remarkable comeback as the party's First Secretary in Wales.

Alarm bells are ringing at Labour's London headquarters over the possibility that Alun Michael, the Welsh Secretary, who defeated Mr Morgan in the race to become the party's leader in the assembly, will fail to win a seat in the first elections to it in May.

An emergency leadership poll would then be called so that the assembly could start work. The two front-runners would be Mr Morgan and Mr Davies, who resigned as Welsh Secretary and First Secretary Designate after what he called a "moment of madness" on Clapham Common last October.

Allies of Mr Davies are confident he would be selected as leader if, as they hope, the choice was left to the Labour candidates who win election to the assembly. But a contingency plan to be approved by the Welsh Labour Party's annual conference in Llandudno on Saturday is designed to scupper Mr Davies' comeback hopes. It will rule that if Mr Michael fails to win a seat, his successor would be chosen at a joint meeting of the Labour assembly members and the Blairite-dominated executive of the Welsh party.

Mr Michael faces a headache over the assembly elections because he is hoping to win a seat as a "top-up" candidate under the proportional representation system. Perversely, this could prevent him landing a seat if Labour does very well in the mid and west Wales area in which he is standing.

Some insiders in the Welsh party put Mr Michael's chances at only 60- 40 but Peter Hain, the Welsh Office minister who ran his leadership campaign, said last night: "We are supremely confident Alun will win."

Although Mr Blair was determined to stop Mr Morgan leading the party in the principality, he would prefer him to get the job rather than Mr Davies. Since losing to Mr Michael, Mr Morgan has rallied strongly behind him in the campaign for the elections and will chair a meeting at which he speaks in Llandudno tonight.

Sources close to Mr Morgan said: "Rhodri would beat Ron hands down."

Dafydd Wigley, the leader of Plaid Cymru, said yesterday there was "dismay" among Labour supporters at Mr Blair's manoeuvres in Wales. "There has been a backlash towards the whole concept of candidates being parachuted in as puppets of the leadership. That is blown to a very great extent in our direction," he said.

People will have two votes in the election, and the Welsh Nationalists claim they are picking up "second preference" votes from Labour.

They estimate Labour is due to get between 30 and 34; Plaid Cymru 14- 16; the Tories and the Liberal Democrats seven each.