Labour Leadership Contest: Blair virtually at the winning post: The battleground now looks to be between Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, for the deputy's job

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ANY lingering doubts over the emergence of Tony Blair as Labour's new leader were effectively ruled out last night as he secured a decisive 154 out of a possible 269 nominations from MPs.

As Mr Blair's prospects of a comfortable win were emphatically boosted, it became clear that the real battleground will be between Margaret Beckett and John Prescott for the deputy's post, with Mrs Beckett perhaps the favourite.

Constituency party members and levy-paying trade unionists will each account for one-third of the electoral college. But with 46 and 42 nominations respectively, it will be virtually impossible for Mr Prescott, the employment spokesman, and Mrs Beckett, the acting leader, to catch Mr Blair up.

Mrs Beckett's 106 deputy leadership nominations to Mr Prescott's 101, meanwhile, presage a bitter fight for the number two job.

Runaway favourite from the outset, Mr Blair garnered 13 nominations from Shadow Cabinet members as against three for Mr Prescott and none for Mrs Beckett.

But nomination papers reveal clear differences in the Shadow Cabinet over the deputy role, with Mrs Beckett gaining a slender advantage over Mr Prescott.

Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, who spent the day detailing Labour's 'University for Industry' proposals at a London conference, nominated Mrs Beckett for deputy, as did six other Shadow Cabinet members and Neil Kinnock, the former leader.

Mo Mowlam, the heritage spokeswoman and a strong and early Blair backer, and Robin Cook, trade and industry spokesman,were among four Shadow Cabinet backers of Mr Prescott as deputy.

Leaders of the TGWU, the biggest Labour-affiliated union which sponsors both Mr Blair and Mrs Beckett as MPs, last night recommended its 800,000 levy-paying members to back her as leader. Leaders of the second largest union, the GMB, decided against recommending candidates.

But absence of Shadow Cabinet support for her leadership bid, and her rather better showing in the deputy stakes, indicates she may have played her hand badly in going for both.

Hustings held by the TGWU last night revealed the first cracks in Labour's unity. Mrs Beckett and Mr Prescott both lived up to their left credentials by pledging to repeal of much of the Government's trade union law and its replacement with 'positive' rights.

Mr Blair, shadow Home Secretary, backed a 'positive' framework of law but said: 'I don't believe it would be sensible to say we would repeal all the Tory trade union legislation.' He sought to emphasise his neutrality on the deputy leadership by disclosing that he would not cast a vote. As the results were announced, he said: 'The real prize is not the leadership but victory at the general election.'

Jack Straw, environment spokesman and Mr Blair's campaign manager, said: 'What's significant is that (supporters) came from all sections of the PLP and all regions and all generations.'

Mrs Beckett secured her leadership nominations in spite of last- ditch manoeuvrings by some of Mr Prescott's camp designed, her supporters said, to squeeze her out. Some Prescott supporters had approached would-be Beckett supporters with appeals to switch allegiance because Mr Prescott might not receive enough nominations.

The episode came amid a scramble to ensure there would be a three cornered contest. After nominating Mr Prescott for the leadership, Ron Davies, the right- leaning spokesman on Wales, made the bizarre announcement that he would vote for Mr Blair.

There was also an eleventh-hour approach to Mr Cook, trade and industry spokesman, to stand for the deputy leadership from MPs unhappy about backing either Mr Prescott or Mrs Beckett. But he had made clear that he was not willing to risk coming third.

Denzil Davies, the anti-Maastricht outsider for the leadership, was excluded after securing only seven nominations.

(Photograph omitted)