Unions back Brown in any future bid for leadership

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Gordon Brown's chances of succeeding Tony Blair as Labour leader received a significant boost yesterday when the party's big union battalions backed the Chancellor in any fight for the top job.

Gordon Brown's chances of succeeding Tony Blair as Labour leader received a significant boost yesterday when the party's big union battalions backed the Chancellor in any fight for the top job.

Despite deep misgivings about Mr Brown, the party's principal affiliates would swing behind him if he stood against anyone even remotely associated with the Prime Minister in the aftermath of the election.

By implication that would almost certainly mean the unions would endorse Mr Brown in a contest against Tony Blair.

Tensions between the two men resurfaced on Thursday when the Prime Minister arranged a press conference which coincided with a long-planned speech by Mr Brown outlining his plans to tackle global poverty. Matters were made worse when Mr Blair refused to guarantee his colleague's job at the Treasury if Labours won the election.

Dave Prentis, leader of the public service union Unison, one of the largest affiliates, urged the two men to stop "knocking six bells out of each other", but said he would endorse the Chancellor should Mr Blair stand down.

"I cannot see anyone other than Gordon Brown at this stage. He's been an effective Chancellor. While we disagree on many things including pensions and the private finance initiative, He has shown a willingness to talk to us. Our relations with No 10 are rather more difficult - the Iraq war has soured relationships quite badly." While he would not a seek "regime change", his union, a leading financial donor to the party, would be "very much involved" in a choosing a new leader.

Unions hold a third of the votes in the electoral college that elects the Labour Party leader. The rest of the voting power is shared equally between party members through the constituency organisations and Labour MPs.

Each section votes on the principle of one person, one vote so unions cannot guarantee the whole of their share will back Mr Brown. However, union leaders and activists will have a powerful influence.

A senior source at Amicus, the other big union affiliate, said that while the organisation harboured serious reservations about the Chancellor, there was no one with the same experience and electoral credibility.

The leader of the GMB general union, Kevin Curran, is arguably the Chancellor's greatest ally in the union movement and a source confirmed yesterday Mr Brown was the "biggest beast available" and would receive its support.

Least enamoured with Mr Brown among the union barons is Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. However an official said that while there might be other candidates in the long term, the Chancellor would enjoy its endorsement in the foreseeable future.

Union officials indicated none of the possible Blairite candidates stood a chance of gaining their support. Among those from the Blair camp touted as possible challengers for the top job are Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and Peter Hain.

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