Blair and Brown camps court Johnson

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Indy Politics

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, is being wooed by the rival Blair and Brown camps as he decides whether to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership.

The former postman has emerged as a pivotal figure in the battle for the Labour succession following Tony Blair's announcement that he will stand down next year.

Allies of Mr Brown are trying to persuade Mr Johnson to stand only for the deputy leadership, saying he could be "in pole position" to win the post and would then emerge as a big player in a Brown government. Although the Chancellor will not endorse any candidate as his deputy, he is said to have held "friendly" talks with Mr Johnson.

But Blairites who want to see the Chancellor face a "real contest" are urging the Education Secretary to run for the top job. They believe there are three credible candidates who could stand against Mr Brown - Mr Johnson, the Home Secretary, John Reid, and the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, who has endorsed the Chancellor.

Mr Johnson has confirmed his interest in the deputy leadership, which John Prescott is expected to vacate when Mr Blair quits. But he is keeping his cards close to his chest about whether he will run for the leadership.

The Blair camp is in no hurry to choose any "stop Brown" candidate. One insider said: "We will see how things develop over the next few months. If somebody emerged now, Gordon would do a demolition job on him. He has already picked off a succession of potential challengers."

Today Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will make his pitch for the deputy leadership when he addresses a fringe meeting at the TUC conference in Brighton. He is backing Mr Brown for the top job.

Despite continuing pressure from MPs and trade union leaders for Mr Blair to quit soon, Mr Prescott has made clear to Mr Brown that the Prime Minister should not be forced out of office within weeks.

The Deputy Prime Minister, who has acted as an honest broker for the transition of power between the two men, has privately insisted that Mr Blair should be allowed more time for a handover next year.

Mr Prescott is expected to announce around the time of Labour's conference in a fortnight that he is ready to step down with Mr Blair. However, Prescott allies said he was holding back his announcement as a bargaining counter in the efforts to force Labour's warring factions to accept the important role of party members and the unions in the timing of the leadership election. One said: "What John is basically saying is that Tony and the MPs have got to start factoring in the party a bit more."

Yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister broke his silence over the leadership row by warning on BBC Radio 4 that Labour would lose the next election if the "backbiting" continued.

Members of Labour's national executive committee met in Brighton last night for an initial discussion about the leadership election and the party's cash crisis. One source said that the party was so strapped for cash that it could even have difficulty in funding the election.

He added that the party might even have problems paying the staff's wages unless extra funds were found soon. It is expected that a big trade union will be called upon to stump up more money.