Poll suggests Welsh defeat for Michael

TONY BLAIR'S problems over the Ron Davies affair deepened yesterday as Alun Michael, the man he wants to lead the new Welsh Assembly, appeared to be heading for an embarrassing defeat.

A poll by the BBC showed that Rhodri Morgan, the Labour MP opposed by Mr Blair, enjoys a 3-1 lead over Mr Michael among the party's candidates for the new Welsh Assembly. Fifty-five candidates backed Mr Morgan and only 18 opted for Mr Michael.

Senior Labour figures admitted Mr Morgan, seen as a maverick by the Blair camp, was successfully exploiting a sense of "alienation" among Welsh Labour activists, who felt they had been "taken for granted" for too long.

The Welsh Labour executive is expected on Monday to order an early election for the post of Labour's nomination for "Prime Minister of Wales", in the hope of avoiding a long, divisive contest. That would not leave long for Mr Michael, who succeeded Mr Davies as Secretary of State for Wales, to make up the ground between him and Mr Morgan.

Half the 34 Welsh Labour MPs yesterday joined the calls for Mr Morgan to stand aside for Mr Michael and serve as his deputy in assembly on a "team ticket".

But Mr Morgan maintained he was "the people's choice and the candidates' choice". He attacked the "control freak faction" at Labour's London headquarters, who were trying to block his ambitions.

Peter Hain, Mr Michael's campaign manager and a Welsh Office minister, insisted Mr Michael could overtake Mr Morgan. "More and more party members want credible national leadership of Cabinet stature to take Wales into the next century."

Downing Street yesterday denied it was involved in a "cover-up and conspiracy" over what Mr Blair knew about the events before Mr Davies' resignation. But it admitted it may have inadvertently misled journalists after his departure.

At the time, Mr Blair's official spokesman denied there had been any contact between the police and Downing Street before the Prime Minister accepted his resignation.

Yesterday Number 10 insisted its spokesman was not aware when be briefed reporters that John Stephens, Scotland Yard's Deputy Commissioner, had already spoken to Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, about the events which led to Mr Davies' downfall 40 minutes before Mr Blair met him.

"There is no cover-up. There is no conspiracy here; we have nothing to hide," the spokesman said.

"We were answering [questions from journalists] in good faith on the basis of the knowledge we had at the time."

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