A dream ticket of Alan Johnson and John Reid is being discussed by ultra-Blairites in an attempt to prevent Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister.
Tony Blair declined to endorse Mr Brown as his favoured successor yesterday but said he did not draw back from his previous comments about his Chancellor - including a statement that he would make a brilliant prime minister.
Mr Blair's refusal to give Mr Brown an immediate endorsement will fuel speculation that a heavyweight contender may emerge to challenge the Chancellor for the leadership. The proposed Johnson-Reid double act is seen by some Blairites as a combination that would enable Labour to reforge the wide coalition of electoral support which enabled it to win power in 1997.
Under the plan, either the Home Secretary or the Education Secretary would run for the leadership and the other for the deputy's post as his running mate. A decision on who would stand for which post would depend on their level of support among Labour MPs, party members and trade unions; each group has a third of the votes in Labour's electoral college.
One prominent Blairite said: "Reid and Johnson would be a powerful team. They would complement each other, with John as the hard cop and Alan as the soft cop. As a duo, they would appeal to all sections of the electorate."
Mr Reid and Mr Johnson kept their leadership options open yesterday. But the Home Secretary hinted that Mr Brown should not be seen as Mr Blair's automatic successor. He told ITV1's The Sunday Edition: "People want to see that there will be an open, transparent discussion on a wide range of issues and not some smoke-filled room deal, like the Labour Party used to engage in."
Allies of Mr Blair insist he has not decided whether to say the election of a new leader is a matter for the party and endorse no one or to give an eventual endorsement to one candidate.
He is said to believe that Mr Brown will win the leadership election and some aides believe he will eventually support the Chancellor. But they suggest he wants to be convinced that Mr Brown would stick to a Blairite reform agenda and run a "collegiate" cabinet which would include Blair allies.
In a BBC interview, Mr Blair warned that his party would risk losing power if it turned its back on his New Labour agenda.
He appeared to give only lukewarm support to a plan by Mr Brown to set up an NHS board to take day-to-day decisions on health out of ministers' hands. "We should debate it. But the most important thing in my own view for the health service is to keep the reform programme going," he said.
Blair advisers said the NHS was "not the same" as the Bank of England, to which Mr Brown handed interest rate decisions in 1997. One said: "The Bank takes only one clear-cut decision. The NHS is much more complicated and it may be difficult to draw the line between tactics and strategy. There is already a large amount of devolution in the NHS."
Asked if he wanted Mr Brown to succeed him, Mr Blair refused to be drawn, saying Labour must use the conference to "reconnect" with people after going "Awol from the British public" during the recent outbreak of infighting.
"Gordon has been a fantastic chancellor," Mr Blair said. "He's been a great servant of the country and the party - I don't resile from anything I've said before." He added: "Don't read anything into what I'm saying that is disrespectful or contrary to the interests of anybody, including Gordon."
The Prime Minister denied any ideological split at the top of the party and called for a "unified direction" to be agreed on policy. He said it was important for him to "play a role" in ensuring Labour had "the big answers to the big questions" facing the country.
He denied trying to tie Mr Brown's hands. "After you go, it's up to people to decide what to do, and that's for the new people to take on."
* Public confidence in Gordon Brown as the next prime minister fell from 36 per cent earlier in the year to 27 per cent, according to a YouGov poll in The Daily Telegraph. The proportion thinking he would probably fail as a prime minister has risen from 33 per cent to 44 per cent.Reuse content