Labour may call off deputy leader race

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Indy Politics

A row has broken out between Labour MPs over whether the cash-strapped party should cancel the election for a deputy leader when John Prescott steps down.

At least one of the cabinet candidates is threatening to protest to the party if there is any move to cancel the election for a deputy. But there is growing pressure on the party leadership to avoid the £2m cost of running a ballot for a post which many regard as a "non-job".

Gordon Brown, who is expected to be elected leader unopposed, has so far refused to say that he would continue with the appointment of a Deputy Prime Minister once Mr Prescott has gone. One of the deputy leadership candidates, John Cruddas, is campaigning for the post to be scrapped.

As a result, a growing number of MPs are saying that the party would be better off not having an election for the deputy leadership with its limited powers. One former minister who is close to Mr Prescott said: "You could leave it to the party chairman [Hazel Blears] to carry on the duties of the deputy leader.

"But we could do without a contest right now."

John Spellar, another former minister, is leading the calls for the election of a deputy to be shelved. He said it would save money for the party, which is £23m in debt. It would also avert the prospect of a divisive contest that pitched cabinet ministers against each other. "It would cost some £2m to have an election at a time when the party is £23m in the red," he said. "It could also mean cabinet responsibility starting to fall apart as people would feel compelled to comment on each other's portfolio. How can you run cabinet government on that basis? Instead of an internal navel-gazing exercise, we should be devoting all our efforts to the council elections and the elections in Scotland and Wales next year."

He called for Labour's annual conference in September to be given a vote on abolishing the post of deputy leader - and for a contest only to be held if the idea is rejected.

Mr Spellar said his proposal to scrap the election had been unanimously supported by Labour activists in his constituency of Warley in the West Midlands.

A Commons early day motion calling for the abolition of the post of Deputy Prime Minister, which it describes as serving "no useful purpose", has been signed by 10 MPs, including six from the Labour Party. However, the campaign teams said they would fight any attempt to scrap the election for a deputy.

"They would need a special conference to scrap the election because they would need to change the rules," said a member of Peter Hain's campaign team. "That would be more expensive and the party would be outraged. We need a proper debate on the party's long-term future."

A member of Hilary Benn's team said: "There's no way this is going to be accepted." A former cabinet minister said: "The teams are already up and running. You can't call it off now."

Meanwhile, Ms Blears has warned of a resurgent Conservative Party in a letter to activists. She told Labour members to prepare for a general election "which may be less than 16 months away". Her letter warns of "real challenges", including a change of party leader and a Tory "comeback". However, senior government figures said her letter was a precaution and was not based on inside knowledge that Mr Brown would call a snap election.

The Conservatives said the "sooner" an election was held "the better". The Liberal Democrats said that they were "ready and waiting" for polling day.