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Lagarde the early favourite to take over as head of IMF

If a European does get the IMF job, it is difficult to see one getting the World Bank job. Mr Brown may be stymied

After Dominique Strauss-Kahn yielded to the intense pressure on him to jump before he was pushed and resign as head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, the French Finance Minister and described by her admirers as a "financial rock star" emerged as favourite to succeed him.

Gordon Brown, who has made little secret of his availability for the post, appears an outsider. His staff said yesterday he had not been running a "campaign", but has been fielding many calls from supporters. The open hostility to him from David Cameron and George Osborne remains the principal obstacle in his way and their poor view of his economic record appears to be shared elsewhere: the Swedish finance minister Anders Borg yesterday suggested that "it would be difficult to have someone so responsible for the fiscal crisis in the UK at the helm of the IMF". By contrast, he praised Ms Lagarde's "outstanding credentials."

Mr Osborne last week called her "a good friend". If successful she would be the first female, though the fourth French national, to be IMF boss.

But the decision on the succession is far from made and far from imminent. The acting managing director, John Lipsky, could run the IMF until the autumn and there will be much diplomatic wrangling meantime. Ms Lagarde has some strong competition from within Europe and the emerging economies, who have been increasingly vocal in their wish to see a non-Westerner in the post. Zhou Xiaochuan, the head of the People's Bank of China said: "The composition of senior management should better reflect changes in global economic patterns and represent emerging markets."

Against that, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has voiced openly her preference for a European and the former Bundesbank president, Axel Weber, is being touted as Berlin's preference, with the governor of the Swiss central bank, Philipp Hildebrand, a second choice.

The argument being put forward by the eurozone powers is that with much of the sovereign debt problems of the world centred on Europe and with three substantial IMF rescues under way there, it would be best if a European were to head the fund. They would, it is hoped, bring a more immediate knowledge of Europe's problems and the political context of the crises.

Emerging nations, though, point to the irony that the nations now being asked to fund bailouts for Europe are effectively debarred from putting forward a candidate to be managing director by the old convention that the job is held by a European. A fresh pair of eyes, it is said, is now needed to look at Europe's problems and a there are a number of viable candidates. Leading the field are Kemal Dervis, a former Turkish finance minister, Trevor Manuel, who was South Africa's finance minister and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, senior economic policy-maker in India.

Much now depends on how the US views the process. Since the 1944 foundation of the World Bank and the IMF, the unwritten rule has been that the World Bank presidency is reserved for an American and the IMF for a European. With the rise in economic power of the emerging nations such as China, India and Brazil has come increasing pressure to offer them a wider role on the world stage.

That pressure led to the formation of the G20 as the principal forum in global economic policy making, supplanting the older G7 group of the established powers in the West. For now, though, the US and Europe still dominate the voting at the IMF and they would have to take a decision to relinquish the old convention.

How IMF succession works

* Formally, the IMF managing director is elected by the Fund's executive board, but in reality they prefer a leader to emerge by "consensus".

* The US, which has 16 per cent, and the Europeans dominate the voting in this 24-strong group, in which the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan represent themselves; others represent geographical blocs of nations.

* The fast-emerging nations are still under-represented, despite proposals to boost their share of power.

* By-laws state the managing director must be under 65 on appointment, and can serve until 70, but this could be amended for the right candidate.

Sean O'Grady