The Labour Leadership: Beckett pledges to fight for place on Shadow Cabinet: The acting leader has no regrets about fighting two contests. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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The Independent Online
MARGARET BECKETT yesterday vowed to claw her way back into the Labour high command as she pledged unequivocal support for Tony Blair and John Prescott after her disappointing double defeat in the leadership elections.

A visibly upset Mrs Beckett emerged from yesterday's special meeting no longer a member of the Shadow Cabinet, or of the ruling National Executive Committee, on which she had served for the past two years in her capacity as John Smith's deputy.

But she left no doubt that subject to the formality of a nomination she would fight hard for votes in the Shadow Cabinet elections in the autumn. She has already been nominated by her Derby South constituency party for this autumn's NEC elections.

Mrs Beckett, 51, refused to discuss why she was defeated, saying it was 'too early to analyse' and 'not easy to judge'.

The former education minister is a tough-skinned and seasoned operator but had spread herself thinly. She combined the leader and deputy campaign with her duties as pro tem leader, including Prime Minister's Questions, after shouldering a heavy campaigning role as deputy leader during the European elections.

Friends said she was tired and disappointed. She looked close to tears on the platform yesterday as David Blunkett, the party chairman, spoke of the 'debt of gratitude' she was owed. The setbacks are unlikely, however, to have severely dented her ambition.

While the Beckett camp resolved that there would be no whingeing over press coverage depicting her as heavily courting the union vote, it was emphasised that she had never strayed beyond Labour policy.

But the debate was inflamed by remarks indicating backing for secondary picketing when she spoke of 'sweeping the board clear' of trade union law and replacing it with new legislation that allowed a 'sensible, workable and fair approach to secondary picketing'.

Her suggestion that water might be partly returned to public ownership and her continuing membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were further bones of contention.

During his campaign Mr Prescott spoke of bringing in a 'statutory framework for picketing'. He made a specific commitment that unemployment should be cut to 2.5 per cent, then rowed back from it. He was also the only Labour politician to make an uncosted pledge for the restoration of income support for 16- and 17-year- olds. None of this appeared to be held against him as his personal popularity soared.

Asked if she had regrets about standing for both contests, Mrs Beckett said: 'None at all. I think it was the right thing to do. The party had to be given the choice, and the party has made that choice.' She is expected to do well in the NEC elections, while it was mooted yesterday that in the Shadow Cabinet elections she might benefit from a measure of traditional Labour sympathy.

The reality might be that she will have to summon all her political will to secure a top job.

Some observers recalled last year's elections, when votes were deliberately dumped on marginal candidates to stop prominent women being elected. Lingering resentment that she had the temerity to muddy the waters by standing for both contests might also re- surface, it was suggested.

(Photograph omitted)