Hain's tip for leadership: Gordon is unbeatable

Stopping Chancellor is 'a forlorn mission', says minister who hopes to be Deputy PM
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Indy Politics

Sitting in his home in Neath, Peter Hain is occasionally interrupted by his grandchildren watching Postman Pat. It's Postman Alan that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales is keeping an eye on.

Alan Johnson, who has risen from the rounds of Slough to front-runner in the race for the deputy leadership, is the focus of intense speculation this weekend. Will Mr Johnson upgrade his campaign to go for the top job, taking on Gordon Brown? Mr Hain has some candid advice: "It's a forlorn mission."

"In my view I don't think anyone else could or should beat Gordon." Hain also has some trenchant criticism of Mr Johnson for staking his claim to the deputy leadership while the political corpse of the present incumbent is still warm.

"This question arose at a time when John Prescott was at his very lowest and I thought it very disloyal to be trying to grab his job. At the time when others were declaring we had no idea of how far off a contest would be. I felt it highly premature and disloyal."

But after the past tumultuous week in Labour politics, Mr Hain feels the time is right to declare his own hand. It is expected that he will formally announce his candidacy for the deputy leadership at the TUC conference this week.

He will campaign on a ticket that blends unswerving loyalty to Mr Brown with a drive to win back middle-class voters. In another clear dig at Mr Johnson, he says Labour doesn't need any more tension among its leaders.

"Whoever is our next deputy leader should be someone who doesn't have one eye on the top job. We don't need another period of mistrust and division at the top of the party."

He rebukes Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers for "contriving" an ideological schism. "To suggest that there's this divide between people who want to go forward is fatuous nonsense."

Labour needs to debate not its ideology but how to win back the voters. Issues such as civil liberties, devolution, voting reform and the environment once helped to get New Labour elected: Peter Hain's view is that unless the party can reassemble its shattered "progressive coalition" it will lose the election.

"Whole groups of people have lost faith with us and we need to reconnect with them. The leadership and deputy leadership elections could be a way of doing that. We will not win the next election unless we do this."

While careful not to condone the actions of the 17 MPs who forced Tony Blair to say he will leave office in the next year, Mr Hain agrees they helped to "clear the air". He says he welcomes the clarity the week has bought. "And I know that Gordon does because I have spoken to him about it. It's now clear that there's going to be a change of leadership next year - probably earlier rather than later."

As Labour's bloodletting intensified this week, the minister showed a glimpse of the personal side of rupturing political friendships. "Charles [Clarke] was one of the closest friends I had in the Cabinet but I don't think this kind of outburst is helpful. Those who wish to challenge Gordon for the leadership - and they are perfectly entitled to do so - have to do so in a temperate and constructive fashion."