Prescott likely to contest leadership with Blair

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The contest for John Smith's successor will be a classic right-left fight between Tony Blair, shadow Home Secretary, and John Prescott, Labour's employment spokesman, MPs predicted yesterday.

While Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, has been under pressure from his supporters to keep his hat in the leadership ring, he appeared last night to be losing the struggle against Mr Blair, his friend and political ally.

Although the two men stuck religiously to Labour's self-imposed media silence until after Mr Smith's funeral on Friday, they have agreed it would not be in the party's interests if they stood against each other.

What now appears to be the inevitable emergence of a single candidate for the 'modernising' wing of the party will leave the Labour left with little option but to follow suit, opening the way for a straight two horse race, probably in mid-July.

As the bandwagon for Mr Blair gathered momentum - boosted by three weekend polls marking him out as front-runner - Mr Prescott's supporters now believe there is little doubt that he will wish to stand as a candidate for the left.

Contrary to some weekend reports, the left's other potential contender, Robin Cook, Labour trade and industry spokesman, has not decided whether he wishes to stand. But while Mr Cook will be under pressure from his supporters to do so, he is likely to find himself in a similar position to Mr Brown. An accommodation between him and Mr Prescott therefore seems inevitable. Mr Cook, a skilled operator, is not expected to yield easily but Mr Prescott appears to be gaining more popular support.

Mr Cook may yet emerge as the campaign manager of the candidate most likely to win - although he may have tired of his 'king-

making' role.

The party's National Executive Committee is expected to rule that the contest should be held on a preferential basis, probably by the single transferable vote.

That would theoretically enable two candidates from a single faction to stand without necessarily splitting the vote, but Labour sources heavily discounted the prospect of that yesterday. 'You have to be realistic,' one said. 'There will be two candidates at the end of the day.'

The expected decision by Mr Brown to stand aside to allow Mr Blair, the MP for Sedgefield, a clear run at the leadership will be one of the most difficult of his political life. Because Mr Blair, at 41, is so young in political terms, Mr Brown might be signing away his best hope of becoming Prime Minister.

Mr Brown, the MP for Dunfermline East, has attracted support among MPs, constituency activists and some trade unionists on the basis of being the lesser of the two 'modernising' evils.

But MPs' soundings in their constituencies indicate that shoulder- to-shoulder support among Scottish Labour members may not have materialised. 'It's Blair, Blair, Blair,' one said.

A further difficulty for Mr Brown is his critics' contention that his leadership style would represent a break from the 'team leader' approach established by Mr Smith.

Some trade unionists would prefer a 'ticket' in which the more union-friendly Mr Prescott could emerge as Mr Blair's deputy. In what could develop into a bigger issue, one MP gave a gentle reminder yesterday that Margaret Beckett, the current deputy, was herself elected as part of the John Smith ticket.

She could not, however, be challenged before the October party conference unless she vacated the deputy leadership in the interests of party unity or - now a remote possibility - stood for leader herself.

Unions seek consensus, page 2

Life is nasty, page 14