Move to block 'Gordon's coronation'

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Allies of Tony Blair have called for a "real contest" for the Labour leadership in an attempt to prevent a virtual coronation for Gordon Brown when the Prime Minister stands down.

Some Blairites hope that a cabinet minister will oppose the Chancellor and said the prospects of that increased yesterday when Brown supporters were accused of mounting a plot to force the Prime Minister out of office.

John Burton, Mr Blair's agent in his Sedgefield constituency and a close ally, said that the Prime Minister backed such a contest. "It's not just a case of handing it down to the heir apparent. For the good of the party there's got to be a contest," he said.

He suggested that one candidate could be John Reid, the Home Secretary, who enhanced his leadership credentials by heading the response to last month's alleged plot to blow up transatlantic planes. "He doesn't want to do it, but he might be persuaded. John would have the guts to run and the intellectual capacity for it," one Blairite said.

Blair allies denied that they were trying to "set tests" for Mr Brown and threatening him with a cabinet-level challenge unless he refused to commit himself to a Blairite agenda.

The other most likely cabinet candidate is Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, who is seen as more independent-minded than Mr Reid but could emerge as a "stop Brown" candidate.

He is certain to run for the Labour deputy leadership currently held by John Prescott, who intends to resign when Mr Blair does. But some supporters hope that Mr Johnson will run for both the deputy and leader's posts - as Mr Prescott did in 1994 when Mr Blair won the top job.

John Hutton, the Blairite Work and Pensions Secretary, who has refused to join other cabinet ministers in anointing Mr Brown, is seen as an outside bet to be a candidate but said he was "highly unlikely" to run.

Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, could have been a strong candidate but his prospects have been weakened by his sacking. Blairites believe a challenger should be a member of the current cabinet.

Mr Brown will not avoid a contest since he will be challenged by John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, who chairs the left-wing Campaign Group. He suggested yesterday that Mr Brown's moment had passed. He launches the first stage of his campaign today with a public meeting in Manchester.

Writing in The Independent today, Mr McDonnell attacks the "vicious infighting" between the Blair and Brown camps. He says: "A change of leader without a fundamental break with New Labour, its policies and its politics, risks not just the loss of the next election but the potential of a party broken and in the wilderness for a generation."