An ICM/Guardian poll last night put Mr Prescott just ahead of Mrs Beckett with 44 per cent backing him to her 41 per cent.
The poll shows Mrs Beckett has a strong appeal among female voters, however, with a 14 per cent lead among women compared with Mr Prescott's 19 per cent lead among men.
Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, whom Mr Prescott fought for the post in 1988, and Gerald Kaufman, the former foreign affairs spokesman, are now firmly expected to vote for Mr Prescott. In addition, there are signs that about 10 MPs who nominated Mrs Beckett as deputy may switch.
Some centre-right MPs are considering backing Mr Prescott because, while Mrs Beckett is acknowledged to have performed the acting leader's role well, they feel she has acquitted herself much less well in the campaign. There is also some alarm on the right at the extent of her support from the Campaign group and others on the left.
Early returns from Labour clubs which have voted by ballot box rather than postal vote were said to have clearly favoured Labour's employment spokesman, while an 'exit poll' of 500 members conducted by the steel workers' union put Mr Prescott well ahead.
The results released by the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation showed the leadership contest going to a second ballot with Tony Blair recording 242 votes, Mr Prescott 180 and Margaret Beckett 78. Her voters' second preferences split 40 to 31 for Mr Blair. For the deputy leadership, however, Mr Prescott scored 384 votes to Mrs Beckett's 109.
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West), Brian Donohoe (Cunninghame South) and Hugh Bayley (York) are among MPs who nominated Mrs Beckett but are reported to be voting for Mr Prescott, while Piara Khabra, MP for Ealing Southall, said yesterday he was doing the same.
Roger Berry, MP for Kingswood, who nominated Mr Prescott for leader and Mrs Beckett for deputy said he might switch his vote.
Mr Berry said that after Mr Prescott's highlighting of the economic issues, he, as chairman of the Full Employment Forum 'would want to vote for John Prescott for whatever jobs might be going'.
There remained, however, a 'a real dilemma' over seeing Mrs Beckett displaced in favour of an all-male leadership team. Last night's poll shows 41 per cent of voters backing Tony Blair as leader, with 26 per cent for Mr Prescott and 16 per cent for Mrs Beckett.
Mrs Beckett's camp protested at what it saw as attempts to build a John Prescott 'bandwagon', claiming there were deserters from Mr Prescott's cause to Mrs Beckett's for both the leader's and deputy's posts.Reuse content