No vacancy, no poll date - yet race to be deputy PM hots up

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Indy Politics

Officially, they are running the country but unofficially almost a third of Tony Blair's Cabinet are running for something else - the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. It is a strange contest: there is no vacancy and no one knows when the formal election will take place. But the starting gun was fired when Mr Blair announced in September that this year's Labour Party conference would be his last - and John Prescott, the deputy leader, followed suit.

Six of the seven potential candidates for the number two job have a busy enough day job as a minister. Peter Hain is grappling with the Northern Ireland peace process at a delicate stage. Alan Johnson is in charge of our schools. Hilary Benn travels the world's troublespots as International Development Secretary.

Yet their campaign teams are up and running and they are finding time to schmooze Labour MPs and trade union bosses and address meetings of Labour Party activists in all corners of Britain. The deputy leader will be chosen by an electoral college in which MPs, union members and party members each have a third of the votes.

Mr Blair's long goodbye means the contest could last for as long as a year. On one scenario, the new Labour leader and deputy might not be installed until the Labour conference in September next year.

Although for now the contest is being largely conducted behind the scenes, it is starting to get bitchy. Allies of some candidates whisper gentle put-downs of their rivals in the corridors of Westminster.

Hazel Blears, the Labour chairman, is under fire from opponents who claim she has an unfair advantage because she has few ministerial responsibilities and can therefore spend most of her time pressing the flesh of party members. Her allies insist she has been speaking at Labour meetings for 20 years, is merely doing her current job and has not decided whether to run for deputy leader.

There is also what Labour's male MPs call a "catfight" between Ms Blears and Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs minister, to emerge as the "women's candidate". Only one woman is likely to clear the crucial first hurdle - winning nominations from 44 Labour MPs to secure a place in the ballot.

Some senior ministers are worried that some candidates are straying over the line of "collective responsibility" by setting out their personal agendas rather than the policies agreed by the Government. They mutter that Mr Hain and Mr Benn are playing to the party gallery on the Trident nuclear weapons system and House of Lords reform.

While Gordon Brown looks a shoo-in to succeed Mr Blair, the race for the deputy's post seems wide open. There have already been some twists and turns and there is plenty of time for more. Mr Johnson, seen as the early front-runner, was said to have peaked after performing a sudden U-turn over his plans to force faith schools to take at least 25 per cent of their pupils from other religions or none. But the Johnson camp claims the move won him the support of MPs who were pleased the Education Secretary was listening to their concerns.

Today, Mr Johnson will announce the names of more backers - including the MPs Shahid Malik and Shona McIsaac, the MEP Claude Moraes, the former minister Stephen Twigg and the Children's minister Beverley Hughes.

Ms Hughes said: "Alan is personally and publicly committed to the children and families agenda and has a history of delivery - from the maternity and paternity package at DTI to the children-in-care Green Paper at the Department of Education."

However, Ms Harman set out her pitch for the "family vote" in a speech yesterday. She told the Fawcett Society: "A family focus must run through everything that Labour does. The personal is political."

Not all the candidates are out of the traps. Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, is still weighing up his options but believes there is no need to rush a decision.

The real prize sought by the declared candidates is that of Deputy Prime Minister rather than deputy party leader. But there is no guarantee the winner will become DPM, a post in the Prime Minister's gift. Mr Brown might wait and see who wins the contest before deciding whether to give it.

The candidates

Peter Hain

Age: 56

Present Job: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales

Background: Anti-apartheid campaigner; former Young Liberals' chairman and trade union official

Strength: Wants party to have more influence over government policies; strong on green issues

Weakness: Less popular with fellow MPs than some of his rivals

Prospects: Could perform strongly among unions and party members

Harriet Harman

Age: 56

Present Job: Constitutional Affairs Minister

Background: Civil liberties campaigner; tireless promoter of women's rights and family-friendly policies; former Social Security Secretary

Strength: Could appeal to women and southern voters; has worked well with Gordon Brown in the past

Weakness: Cabinet career bombed when she was sacked from the Department of Social Security Secretary in 1998

Prospects: Not to be discounted - if she can see off Hazel Blears

Hilary Benn

Age: 53

Present Job: International Development Secretary

Background: Son of Tony Benn but "a Benn, not a Bennite"; union official; aide to David Blunkett

Strength: Popular and highly respected in party; seen as electoral asset; would improve links between the party and Government

Weakness: Self-effacing, quiet man who may need to turn up the volume

Prospects: Late entrant but is coming up on the rails

Alan Johnson

Age: 56

Present Job: Education Secretary

Background: Former postman who rose to become leader of the Union of Communication Workers; only member of Cabinet not to go to university

Strength: Populist appeal could boost Labour's election prospects

Weakness: Lack of experience at highest level of government

Prospects: Will be one of three or four candidates on the final ballot paper

Hazel Blears

Age: 50

Present Job: Labour Party chairman

Background: Solicitor; trade unionist; grassroots Labour campaigner; former Home Office minister

Strength: Strong working class credentials would make her a "real Labour" rather than "Blairite" candidate

Weakness: Would be dubbed "Hazel Blairs" by opponents who offer the party a change after the Blair era

Prospects: Could challenge Ms Harman for the party role of the women's standard-bearer

Jon Cruddas

Age: 44

Present Job: MP for Dagenham

Background: Former Blair aide with strong trade union links; well liked on left of party; anti-BNP campaigner

Strength: Would be champion of the Labour grassroots, and would not serve as Deputy Prime Minister

Weakness: Lacks heavyweight experience; could be marginalised by Cabinet

Prospects: May struggle to get the 44 nominations