John Reid has established himself as the main rival to Gordon Brown in the battle to take over at No 10 with a spirited and wide-ranging speech to the Labour conference.
The odds on Mr Reid beating the Chancellor for the leadership nearly halved yesterday after he staked his claim to the top job.
Tony Blair was the first to rise for a standing ovation, fuelling the speculation at the Manchester conference that the Blairites are looking to Mr Reid as a challenger to Mr Brown, who was absent for the speech.
The Home Secretary is understood to have a leadership team in place and is likely to argue he is more likely to connect with the voters of "Middle England". His allies have seized on a BBC focus group survey that placed him well ahead of the Chancellor as the best successor to Mr Blair.
Following his well-received speech, Mr Reid's odds were cut by the bookmaker William Hill from 12/1 outsider to 7/1 second favourite. Mr Brown is the hot favourite at 1/ 4, with Alan Johnson on 8/1 and David Miliband, who has said he would not run, on 12/1.
Mr Reid's address strayed well beyond his home affairs brief and was universally interpreted at the conference as setting down a marker for the top job. He repeatedly referred to "leadership" and pledged to play his "full part" in future Labour victories. He said: "Leadership isn't a zero sum game. When one of us shines it doesn't diminish the others, it reflects on all of us."
Mr Reid won applause as he declared there should be no "no-go areas" for ministers as they confronted extremism and pledged fresh action to tighten border controls, combat terrorism and force offenders to "pay back" their communities for the damage they have caused.
He criticised anti-Americanism in the party as he declared: "You don't have to love everything George W Bush stands for in order to hate everything that Osama bin Laden stands for."
Mr Reid singled out the National Health Service and comprehensive education as two of Labour's finest achievements, arguing they demonstrated the difference between his party and the Tories' "rampant individualism". And in a withering attack on the Tory leader, he accused David Cameron of ducking difficult choices. "David Cameron may find that those who wait too long to see which way the wind is blowing, get blown away by the gale. I recommend he starts making some decisions."
Some cabinet ministers cautioned against Mr Reid sprinting forward in the race. "A lot can happen in the coming weeks," said one of his colleagues. "It was only a few months ago that Charles Clarke was in his job as Home Secretary and look what happened to him."
John Prescott's confirmation to the conference that his address would be his last as deputy leader clears the way for the battle for the deputy leadership to begin in earnest. It followed weeks of speculation and growing frustration by potential candidates, who have already declared themselves in the running. They include Peter Hain, Jon Cruddas, a former trade union go-between for Mr Blair, and Harriet Harman. Other potential candidates are thought to include Jack Straw, who was said to be taking soundings.
Leaving the conference hall, Mr Prescott underlined his concern that his departure should not trigger renewed fighting between the New Labour modernisers and the traditional left wing, the unions, who showed a resurgence at this conference defeating the leadership over the use of private clinics in the NHS, and over opening directors to personal risk in the corporate manslaughter legislation to go through Parliament.
A number of trade union general secretaries are believed to be lining up behind Mr Cruddas, and Brownites fear they are attempting to force the party to the left by electing a deputy who will attempt to rein in Mr Brown, if he becomes leader. GMB officials claim their decision to swing behind Mr Cruddas came from the grass roots, middle-ranking union officials and activists, who were impressed by the campaign platform he outlined in The Independent yesterday.
One trade union leader said: "His big problem may be finding enough MPs to get on the ballot. Whatever happens, he is going to come out of this well."
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