Peacemaker who promises to bridge divide between Old and New Labour

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Indy Politics

Alan Johnson is portraying himself as a unity candidate who would "distil" Old Labour and New Labour into what he calls "Real Labour". But who is the real Alan Johnson? The 56-year-old Education Secretary is something of a mystery man. For a politician, he has made remarkably few enemies and is extremely popular among Labour MPs.

Some colleagues attribute this to his strategy of keeping his policy cards close to his chest. They draw a parallel with John Major, an outsider who won the Tory leadership race in 1990 when the party's factions all thought he was "one of us".

Mr Johnson is being courted as a "stop Brown" candidate by Blairites desperate to find a standard-bearer in the leadership election. But he is also being wooed by Brownites who say he would be a pivotal figure in a Brown government if he wins the deputy leadership, for which he has announced he will stand. The only member of the Cabinet not to go to university, he has a "life story" that a spin doctor would die for. He was brought up by his sister in a council flat after his mother died when he was 12.

The former postman, who became general secretary of the Union of Communications Workers, used to deliver the mail to Dorneywood - the Deputy Prime Minister's country home.

As the only senior union leader to back Mr Blair's move to abolish Clause IV of Labour's constitution, he had good modernising credentials when he entered Parliament in 1997 as MP for Hull West and Hessle. He rose up the ladder, upsetting some of his former union brethren by resisting demands to repeal Tory industrial relations laws.

He won rave notices from the Blair camp when he saw off a dangerous rebellion over university top-up fees as higher education minister. His reward was promotion to the Cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary in 2004.

But his track record suggests he is a conciliator and pragmatist rather than an arch-Blairite. He baulked at some Downing Street proposals for curbing incapacity benefit. In his second cabinet job as Trade and Industry Secretary, he was accused of giving too many concessions to the unions.

He is known as a canny operator, and the suspicion among some Labour MPs is that he is allowing speculation he will challenge Mr Brown to run so that he will win the election for deputy leader. It might just work.

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