Contenders scrap over top Scots post

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Indy Politics

The contest for the leadership of Scotland's Labour Party, and ultimately First Minister of the country, was shaping up to be a two-horse race yesterday.

As members of Labour's Scottish Executive held an emergency meeting in Stirling to decide on a timetable to elect their new leader, it emerged that the main battle will be between Jack McConnell, the Education and Europe Minister, and a "stop McConnell" candidate.

The most likely person to stand between McConnell and the leadership is Enterprise Minister Wendy Alexander, who is seen as a protégé of Chancellor Gordon Brown and an enthusiastic exponent of new Labour policies. She is also a fiercely ambitious minister with an endless supply of energy.

Ms Alexander is the sister of Douglas Alexander, one of Mr Brown's closest allies at Westminster. The Westminster MPs with Scottish seats have a share of the votes in the electoral college, and Mr Brown, who has been assiduous in building alliances with Labour MPs at Westminster, could help tip the balance in Ms Alexander's favour.

While Mr McConnell is also regarded as a moderniser, there are fears he has pro-independence aspirations in wanting to extend the powers and influence of the Scottish Parliament further.

"I think he is a very strong character and a strong candidate," said Patricia Ferguson, Labour MSP for Glasgow Maryhill. "He has a breadth of experience within the party and has shown that he is capable of doing a really good job for the people of Scotland." While neither Mr McConnell nor Ms Alexander have the Westminster experience of Donald Dewar or Henry McLeish, both are steeped in the intricacies of Scottish politics.

Already rival camps have been set up to canvas support from the unions, backbench MSPs and senior Labour party officials – even though official campaigning is not supposed to get underway until tomorrow, when nominations open. It is widely expected that both ministers will then confirm their intentions to run for leader.

Yesterday's meeting came just two days after Henry McLeish resigned amid controversy over his constituency office expenses. Under the strict rules of the Scotland Act, a new First Leader must be appointed within 28 days; otherwise it is left to Sir David Steel as Presiding Officer to nominate someone to take on the role.

Downing Street insisted Tony Blair had not pushed Mr McLeish into resignation over the £36,000 he claimed from the House of Commons without registering the fact that he was sub-letting his constituency office. The Prime Minister received the call from Mr McLeish as he was travelling by car back from Heathrow after his US trip. Mr McLeish said he had decided to because of the impact the media attacks were having on himself and his family.

The attacks continued yesterday, with claims that he was forced to quit because he feared that a sixth tenant of his office would be disclosed in the Scottish Parliament.