Labour may use 'fast-track' vote to replace leader

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Jim Wallace, Donald Dewar's Liberal Democrat deputy, is temporarily in charge of the Scottish Executive as Edinburgh digested the news of the First Minister's sudden death.

Jim Wallace, Donald Dewar's Liberal Democrat deputy, is temporarily in charge of the Scottish Executive as Edinburgh digested the news of the First Minister's sudden death.

Members of the Scottish Parliament, which was flying flags at half-mast, have 28 days to find a successor. If they fail to meet the deadline, imposed by the Scotland Act, the Scottish Parliament will face dissolution and a general election North of the border. There will also be a by-election for Mr Dewar's seat in Glasgow Anniesland within three months.

Labour refused to speculate on who will take over from Mr Dewar, saying "the whole party is in mourning". But there was confusion whether there would be a contest to succeed Mr Dewar and speculation that the Labour may introduce a "fast-track procedure".

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, ruled himself out of taking saying: "It will be a big man who fills Donald's shoes." The Scottish Parliament will formally nominate Mr Dewar's successor, who will almost certainly be the new Scottish Labour Party leader.

Henry McLeish, Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Labour's chief spokesman in the Scottish Executive during Mr Dewar's last illness, is regarded as the most likely. A former Minister at the Scottish Office, Mr McLeish is seen by Downing Street as "safe hands", with knowledge of Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.

"We shall revert to the position when Donald was in hospital earlier this year," said Jim Wallace, acting First Minister. "I acted as First Minister and Henry was the spokesman for the Labour Party."

Mr McLeish was a professional footballer in East Fife, and a planning officer for local councils. He was elected to Fife Central in 1987. Mr McLeish, who is expected to attract strong union support, worked with Tony Blair on the employment team when Labour was in opposition. Jack McConnell, the Finance Minister, is the greatest rival to Mr McLeish. The former general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party was also convener of Stirling District Council.

Susan Deacon, the Health Minister, is also being taken seriously as a potential First Minister. The business consultant and former director of MBA programmes at Heriot Watt, has impressed Downing Street with her performance.

But the Minister regarded as Mr Dewar's personal choice to succeed him is regarded as an outside contender. Wendy Alexander, special adviser to Mr Dewar while he was Secretary of State for Scotland, drove through the repeal of Section 28 in Scotland. The move, to remove the clause which outlawed promotion of a homosexual lifestyle by local authorities, was opposed in Scotland and the Communities Minister was politically damaged in the process.

The parliament, which started a two-week recess last Thursday, is likely to reconvene on Friday.

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