Enemy of the Blairites tipped to join Cabinet

The former prime minister's supporters fear the growing power of Jon Cruddas. Andrew Grice reports on the new darling of the left
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Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Delegates to the Labour conference have fallen for a new darling. It's not Gordon Brown, or David Miliband, but a backbencher – Jon Cruddas, the left-of-centre MP for Dagenham.

His star is rising so fast that senior ministers expect to see him sitting round the cabinet table with them if, as expected, Mr Brown reshuffles his team soon. And for the first time, Mr Cruddas is giving serious thought to running for the leadership if the Prime Minister is ousted before the general election.

Mr Cruddas, 46, finished a creditable third in Labour's deputy leadership contest last year, ahead of the ministers Hazel Blears, Hilary Benn and Peter Hain. Since then, he has won more Labour admirers – including Mr Brown.

The Labour left, marginalised since Tony Blair became party leader in 1994, suddenly senses the wind in its sails: the global financial crisis makes the Cruddas agenda of state intervention to correct market failures, a crackdown on City excesses, a windfall tax on the energy companies and higher taxes for the rich seem timely and respectable. The unprecedented action by the Bush administration has helped Mr Cruddas's cause. "The terms of the debates are changing," he said yesterday. "You have got possibly the most right-wing government in history intervening in a really creative way, not just in terms of regulation but also interest-rate strategy."

Allies say Mr Cruddas is ahead of the game because he has experienced the problems caused by globalisation in his east London constituency – in housing, immigration and unemployment. He became Dagenham's MP in 2001 after serving as Tony Blair's trade union fixer.

The Blairites are alarmed, accusing Mr Brown of cosying up to Mr Cruddas and his supporters in the trade unions to bolster his position. Blairites fear that the Cruddas recipe of higher taxes for those on £175,000 or £200,000 a year would send the wrong signal to the aspiring middle classes, and lead Labour into an electoral cul-de-sac.

Mr Cruddas insisted the money raised would fund tax cuts for middle- and lower-income families, allowing Labour to rebuild the coalition which secured its victory in 1997. "How do we put the band back together?" he asked. He denied wanting to take the party back to its old Labour "comfort zone".

Friends believe he may turn down Mr Brown's likely offer of a ministerial job. Last year, he spurned the chance to become a junior minister in Ms Blears' Department of Communities and Local Government, as there was little chance of implementing the big council house building programme he had championed. However, he was one of 20 Labour MPs to sign a letter rallying support for Mr Brown at the weekend.

Blairites fear the party will veer left if it loses the general election. Close Brown allies admit that Mr Cruddas could easily win a Labour leadership contest then, as the party might turn away from New Labour by choosing a Real Labour leader.

Neal Lawson, a cheerleader for Mr Cruddas as chairman of the left-wing pressure group Compass, said yesterday: "Once in a generation, the wheel of politics turns. It is turning now and Cruddas could be the right person in the right place at the right time."