The battle that is reshaping Margaret the Second: Labour's deputy leader is ready for them, writes Stephen Castle

THE Newsnight crew had packed up and, as presenter Peter Snow brushed past, Leo Beckett poked his head around the door of the Shadow Cabinet room looking for his wife, Margaret. As her assistant, he said, it was important for him to know where she was when a foreign head of government rang.

Life has changed dramatically for Mrs Beckett since the death of John Smith catapulted her into the acting leadership of the Labour Party. She has inherited Mr Smith's staff and government car, meetings with foreign dignitaries, and a twice- weekly parliamentary platform at Prime Minister's Questions. Last week she mingled with European socialist leaders in Corfu and turned down an interview for Hello] All this for a politician whose lifestyle used to be synonymous with her fabled caravan holidays.

We should perhaps not be so surprised that Mrs Beckett is not giving it up without a fight. It is now reliably said that she decided to stand for the leadership within a few days of Mr Smith's death. She could, after all, have opted for safety first, not contested the leadership and been virtually sure of remaining as deputy.

But she is angry and hurt at the way she was written out of the leadership succession by the media following Mr Smith's death. According to one ally, the automatic assumption that the deputy leader could never get the top job 'would never have applied to a male politician'.

That conviction, and Mrs Beckett's experience and her good Commons performances, prompt her supporters to argue that they are organising a leadership campaign - the deputyship can look after itself. They do this in the knowledge that Tony Blair is clear favourite for the leadership and that such a tactic could leave her without either prize.

Nevertheless, with the elections looking bland, Mrs Beckett has proved to be the wild card. She courted controversy by threatening to 'sweep away' the Tories' industrial relations legislation, mentioned her loyalty to CND, and likened her position to Margaret Thatcher's in the mid-Seventies. Her role in the one member, one vote saga at last year's party conference also returned to spark a new row.

Although some Labour leaders argued last week that Mrs Beckett got into the row over secondary picketing by accident, this seems unlikely. She has always been a disciplined politician. As one friend put it: 'She is well aware of what she is saying. She does not come back from an interview and say 'whoops'.'

Her supporters realise that the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs will back Mr Blair. That means that her best chance lies in the two other sections of the electoral college (each of which are worth one- third): Labour Party members and trade union levy-payers.

Here is uncharted territory. The polls show that Mr Blair is doing very well among Labour supporters, but there is no way of judging his support among levy-payers and party members. If he fails to win 50 per cent in the first ballot, under the electoral system second preferences are redistributed, giving Mrs Beckett a chance as long as she can beat Mr Prescott into third place (and vice versa). Beckett supporters are lobbying local parties and levy-payers but, because of the more than four million-strong electorate, the media are crucial. MPs believe she has used them to which mark herself out from her rivals.

Gender is one example of her themes. She raised eyebrows when she told the Guardian that she was 'already a lot better than' Mrs Thatcher was in the mid-Seventies. As one MP put it, the subtext was that 'people should not underestimate women who seem, at first sight, not to be the obvious choice.'

Similarly with comments on industrial law and CND membership. Some supporters argue that Mrs Beckett is reflecting true party policy rather than the watered-down, modernised version. But most accept that this was an attempt to define different, 'lefter-than-thou' territory to Mr Blair and Mr Prescott while sticking within policy.

As one friend put it: 'We did talk about differentiation from Blair - but then it just happened. Margaret is coming over as what she is, which is a politician from the left.'

That the Beckett camp was keen to mark out new territory is a reflection of the fact that her identity in the party is confused. In 1992 she was elected deputy leader as part of a ticket; this time people need a clearer idea of what she represents.

As a tactic it will probably impress many of those who might support Mrs Beckett for the leadership: the left's Campaign group , those who want 'anyone but Blair', and some women voters.

But it is high risk, given that Mr Blair is clear favourite to win the top job. Mrs Beckett's comments have caused difficulties for MPs on the centre right who backed her for the deputyship, partly as a safe pair of hands, partly because of the need for a 'gender balance' and partly because of her conduct since Mr Smith's death. Several of those who nominated her for the deputy post are having second thoughts.

The larger question is what this will do for relations with Mr Blair, if he wins the leadership and Mrs Beckett returns as deputy. Mr Blair believes that she has done nothing which is unrecoverable, but his ubiquitous smile may yet wear thin.

(Photograph omitted)

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