Labour Party 'damaged' by race to succeed Prescott

Senior Labour figures have expressed concern that the race to succeed John Prescott is damaging the Labour Party, as speculation over the race to succeed him as deputy leader continues to mount.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary and a probable contender for Mr Prescott's job, admitted that talk of the deputy leadership was a " distraction" and acknowledged that the party faced "a difficult time".

Hazel Blears, the party chairman, who was also linked with Mr Prescott's job, has expressed alarm at the damage being caused by the contest, and will spend today urging colleagues to calm down.

As many as six cabinet ministers have either shown an interest in the job or have declined to rule themselves out of the running, despite a very public show of backing for the Deputy Prime Minister.

Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, said she would be "delighted" to see a woman as a future Labour deputy leader, and declined to rule out a leadership bid, saying speculation was "premature".

Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, was also said to be a possible contender enjoying backing in Downing Street.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, sparked speculation about Mr Prescott's position when he told GMTV he would be interested in the job when the Deputy Prime Minister steps down. Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, has also hinted that she would like the job, saying it was a "necessity" to give it to a woman.

Mr Hain made a staunch defence of Mr Prescott and said talk of his successor was "tittle tattle". "There is no vacancy," he told BBC1's Sunday AM.

"I am a strong supporter of John Prescott. I think he does a very good job and I hope he'll continue to do that job." He said: "All of this speculation, frankly, is a distraction. I think party members are frustrated and irritated by it and what they want us to do, cabinet ministers and others, is get on with the job." He added: "I think that Tony will go on until he has said he will stand down, the same will happen with John Prescott and then there will be a fresh leadership election and then we'll go to where we want to be."

Ms Blears will urge colleagues to end speculation about Mr Prescott's job when the Commons returns today from the Whitsun recess. One source said: "She is keen for colleagues to cool it down. This is certainly destabilising.

"The lesson Labour learned is that divided parties are not elected."

Mr Prescott dismissed speculation about the issue yesterday. Asked about the race to succeed him during a visit to the US, he said: "Have you come all the way from the UK to come to ask daft questions like that?"

Richard Caborn, the Sports Minister and a close ally of the Deputy Prime Minister, said colleagues had every right to "position themselves" because Mr Prescott had made it clear he would stand aside when Mr Blair relinquishes the premiership. Mr Cabon said: "He has got the full support of Tony Blair, and indeed Gordon Brown, and he will continue ... until Tony decides that he would want to stand down. Tony has made it very clear he is not going beyond the next election and John Prescott has made it clear he will go when Tony goes as well. So it is inevitable there is going to be an election for the deputy leadership and people are positioning themselves. Nothing wrong with that."

* A new poll puts Labour 10 points behind the Conservative party. The Ipsos/MORI survey, published in the Sun newspaper, gives the Conservatives the support of 41 per cent of respondents, with at 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats at 18 per cent. 26 per cent said they were satisfied with Tony Blair, while 67 per cent said they were satisfied.