Brown gives Labour crown to Blair

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GORDON BROWN yesterday announced he would not be standing for the Labour leadership, making Tony Blair's accession as the next party leader a virtual certainty.

In a statement to end 'speculation and confusion', the shadow Chancellor said that when nominations open after next week's European elections he would encourage Tony Blair to stand and 'I will give him my full support to become not only the Labour Party's next leader but the next prime minister of our country'.

He had taken the decision, he said, because the leadership election should be conducted 'with one consideration and one consideration only in mind - to ensure the election of a Labour government to improve and regenerate our country . . . nothing must be a diversion from the unity and team work necessary to do so'.

As Labour MPs and union leaders hailed the announcement as 'a big decision by a big man', friends of Mr Brown and Mr Blair were emphasising not only the personal and political friendship between the two, but shared policies. Mr Blair was said to accept fully the 'fairness and social justice' agenda which Mr Brown spelt out 10 days ago at the Welsh Labour Party conference in a speech that was seen to set out the shadow Chancellor's leadership stall.

In that speech, Mr Brown underlined his commitment to 'full and fulfilling employment' and a revitalised welfare state, a programme which both camps said he would continue to develop. Colleagues of the shadow Chancellor said there was 'no question' but that he would continue in the post if Mr Blair wins the Labour leadership, and that he could expect to be Chancellor if Labour won.

Mr Brown's early announcement and his emphasis on party unity poses fresh dilemmas for other potential leadership candidates, notably for Margaret Beckett who has also played the party unity and responsibility cards hard since John Smith's death.

Mrs Beckett, however, is under pressure from some Labour women MPs, irritated that she has been dismissed as a serious candidate, not simply to stand aside having performed well as acting leader. This has increased pressure on her to stand, and friends say she has significant support among union leaders and party members. She may not now, however, wish to be seen to divide the party after Mr Brown's sacrifice.

Robin Cook, who was confronted with news of Mr Brown's decision during a press conference, refused to comment. But the shadow Chancellor's decision from the right of the party may ease a decision, at which Mr Cook already appears to have hinted, not to run from the party's left. Like Mr Brown, he has trailed badly in the opinion and straw polls of both party supporters and of the electorate generally. Those have consistently put Mr Blair well ahead with John Prescott second, rating Mr Blair as the more likely to attract crucial floating voters.

Mr Prescott has told friends he believes party members will want a choice. He will now have to judge whether Mr Brown's withdrawal makes Mr Blair's election such a certainty that the shadow employment spokesman might face the humiliation on a first ballot that Bryan Gould experienced in 1992 when standing against John Smith. He will have a separate decision to make on whether to fight Mrs Beckett for the deputy's post.

Some MPs who are determined to see Mr Blair win felt yesterday that Mr Prescott could safely run and provide a respectable showing. Bill Jordan, president of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, appeared to favour a two-way fight: 'It would help the party if only two people were put forward who reflected the spectrum of opinion.'

Winning plaudits, page 2

Leading article, letters, page 17

People's election, page 19